Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) are extraordinary birds of prey. Though on the smaller side, they can kill animals sizably larger than they are. Peregrines also have one of the fastest flying speeds, known to reach up to 200 miles per hour. Their speed and agility make these birds extremely adept hunters. They can catch prey in the air as well as on the ground.
Peregrine falcons primarily eat other birds - ranging in size from small songbirds to geese. Pigeons and waterfowl are among the peregrine’s favorite meals. They are also known to catch small mammals such as bats or rats. Seldomly these birds will eat insects and, even more rarely, carrion.
A peregrine falcons diet varies greatly in the wild. Habitat, region, and season play a role in determining what a falcon is eating. We will dive deeper into these details in the following article!
Peregrine falcon eating recently caught prey
Generally, peregrines eat a wide variety of birds. Pigeons and waterfowl are preferred prey - shorebirds are common if a falcon lives in a coastal area. They also commonly feast on small songbirds, woodpeckers, and even other birds of prey.
When the opportunity presents itself, peregrine falcons will catch and eat mammals. Bats are most popular amongst these birds, but they also occasionally hunt ground-dwelling animals, including rats, rabbits, and squirrels. Occurrences are rare, but the peregrine is known to eat insects, amphibians, and fish as well. They will even steal meals, such as mice or fish, from hawks and other falcons.
Peregrine falcon searching for prey
Peregrine falcons mainly eat other birds during winter, including songbirds, pigeons, and various waterfowl. The species will vary depending on the falcon’s region.
These birds are generally year-round residents along the Gulf of Alaska and Pacific Coast, reaching south throughout Mexico. They also winter along the southern Atlantic Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. In these regions, the falcons will mainly feed on gulls and other shorebirds throughout the winter.
The peregrines that are year-round or overwintering in the interior of Mexico and South America will eat a variety of passerines (perching birds) and waterfowl.
Peregrine falcon eating prey during the winter
Peregrine falcons have a varied diet in the summer. What individual birds eat specifically depends on their region and habitat. Generally, though, summer diets consist primarily of birds with the addition of occasional mammals, fish, reptiles, or insects.
Many peregrines have summer breeding grounds in Alaska and throughout the tundra regions of North America. Here they commonly eat other birds, including golden-plover, common snipe, longspur, rock ptarmigan, and snow bunting. They also feed on mammals such as ground squirrels and lemmings.
In the peregrine’s coastal habitats murrelets, gulls, grebes, the black storm-petrel, and mourning doves are common prey. The fishing bat is frequently on the menu as well. In inland habitats and urban areas, pigeons and doves are favorites of the peregrine falcon, as are a variety of common waterfowl, including ducks, loons, and geese.
Peregrine falcon feeding on a pheasant
Peregrine falcons commonly hunt from a perched position or while flying. Frequent perches include trees, telephone poles, cliff edges, or high mounds. Peregrines like to overlook open air-space where other birds fly. Occasionally they will also hunt on foot.
The peregrine falcon has several attack modes. These are often referred to as direct pursuit, shepherding, stooping, ringing up, contour-hugging, running/hopping, or flapping on the ground. Stooping is the most common form of attack involving the falcon diving quickly from above their potential prey.
Direct pursuit typically follows stooping if the prey gets out ahead of the falcon. Contour hugging, a form of direct pursuit, may be used if a falcon is trying to surprise its prey. In this mode, peregrines use the landscape to obscure themselves as they pursue another bird.
If the falcon is flying below a potential kill, ringing up is the attack form used. In this mode, the predator flies swiftly upward to intercept its prey. Occasionally, a peregrine will fly into a flock of birds hoping one will panic and break away from the group - this is called shepherding. Running, hopping, or flapping on the ground are all attack modes used when the bird is pursuing prey on foot.
Peregrine falcon hunting for prey, high up in the sky
Peregrine falcons typically kill prey by grabbing or striking their catch in the head, back, or wing. Strikes to the head or back often result in an instant kill, while wing strikes injure the other bird making it easier to catch. Occasionally a peregrine will use stooping to force their prey to open ground where it can then be grabbed.
Peregrines begin eating by tearing off the head of their prey. If the kill is small, they will eat it entirely, including the bones. Larger kills, such as geese, are just picked apart with the falcons eating what they want and leaving the rest for carrion consumers.
Peregrine falcons generally eat as often as they can. Many of them will consume the equivalent of two medium-sized perching birds (i.e. blackbirds) per day. Typically, this equals 2 ½ ounces of meat in total.
A pair of Peregrine falcons feeding on a dove together
Baby peregrine falcons are fed by their parents and generally eat the same diet - other birds interspersed with mammals and occasionally fish or reptiles. One parent or the other will bring a carcass back to the nest and feed the chicks by tearing off small pieces of meat.
Peregrine falcon feeding chicks in the nest
Peregrine falcons drink water, typically while bathing. They do so by walking out into shallow water, leaning over, and dipping their bill in to get a mouthful. The bird will then lift its head and neck to swallow.
A peregrine falcon drinking water from a stream
Peregrine falcons do not use bird feeders for the birdseed. However, falcons that live in residential areas where feeders are popular do learn that these are easy areas to hunt. The birds may perch somewhere nearby and wait to swoop in on smaller birds foraging at feeders.
Understandably, falcons hunting at backyard feeders are often unwanted. If this becomes an issue, you may have to remove the feeder for a few days to encourage the bird of prey to find other hunting grounds.
Peregrine falcons are carnivores. They are skilled hunters, both at catching prey in the air and on the ground. The diet of these birds entirely consists of meat from other birds, mammals, reptiles, or fish. Peregrines rarely eat carrion. When they do, it is likely because they have not had luck finding a fresh meal.
Close up of a perched Peregrine falcon
A peregrine falcons’ diet mainly consists of other birds, but they will catch and eat mice when the opportunity presents itself.
Peregrine falcons living around urban or suburban areas commonly eat pigeons. Pigeons and doves are one of the falcon's most sought-after meals.
Peregrine falcons, though powerful, are still quite small. They could not pick up a cat, nor would they eat the entire animal. Thus, cats are unlikely prey for these birds. A peregrine attacking a cat is not out of the realm of possibility, though.
Peregrine do occasionally eat fish. They rarely catch them on their own, however. Instead, these falcons will steal fish from other raptors, such as osprey or red-tailed hawks.
Peregrine falcon in flight
Peregrine falcons will eat squirrels when an easy opportunity presents itself. Generally, these falcons prefer other birds.
Peregrine falcons will occasionally catch and eat rabbits and other small mammals.
Other birds make up the majority of the peregrine’s diet. Falcons have a long list of birds they will eat, including small perching birds, waterfowl, and shorebirds. Specific species vary depending on habitat and region.
Though it is not incredibly common, peregrine falcons are known to kill and eat chickens.
Peregrine falcons will occasionally eat small reptiles such as snakes and lizards.
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