Another Life: Location, location, location – the lives of peregrines

Half a century after their DDT disaster, peregrine falcons are in full recovery, but they follow somewhat different lifestyles on Ireland’s opposite coasts

Dinner time: a peregrine with its prey. Illustration: Michael Viney

Dinner time: a peregrine with its prey. Illustration: Michael Viney


The wind above the cliffs of Dubhoileán Mór was dishevelling even for a peregrine, tugging so fiercely at the thatch of his wings that the usual trim anchor of the falcon’s silhouette was split into a fistful of knives.

He hung at perhaps 10 metres up from the sea-pink cushions where I lay, ogling him through binoculars, and he screamed at me angrily for half an hour. This was his place in the sky, it seemed, for he would sweep away and return to it exactly, hovering like a weathervane or a compass needle.

So this was one encounter with a peregrine that carried the full, wild weight of its presence. Dubhoileán Mór – Duvillaun More in English – is an island between the north cliffs of Achill and the tip of Iniskea, where the bothy ruins are felted with grey-green lichens and many of its rabbits are unexpectedly black. I was there with David Cabot to film the autumnal grey seals and their pups, but it is the falcon that has stayed in mind.

Half a century after their DDT disaster, peregrine falcons are in full recovery, but they follow somewhat different lifestyles on Ireland’s opposite coasts.

In the west they breed on the cliffs of islands and mountains, preying on nesting seabirds and those of the farmland valleys. In winter they hunt the sandy shores and estuaries for migrant waders. They have no particular human enemies beyond occasional thieves of their young and eggs for black-market falconry, and their most violent quarrels are with ravens.

On the eastern littoral of Ireland, where high, safe places are scarcer, every other quarry has had a place in the falcons’ recovery. Urban peregrines find security on the ledges of tall office blocks, churches and industrial constructions. And while winter takes them to the great bird flocks of the Irish Sea bays, their prey in the breeding season has a very different flavour.

Peregrines are increasing in most European cities, but studies of food they take to their chicks are rare. One by the University of Bristol analysed the daily prey of city peregrines in southwestern England, in Bristol, Bath and Exeter. Along with starlings and jackdaws, migrant birds were hunted at night. But pigeons formed about 40 per cent of the diet in the breeding season.

Pigeons and doves are a leading food for peregrines wherever they live worldwide. Unfortunately many of the pigeons based in cities are not wild at all but the property of passionate people who breed them for their special beauty (as in the traditional Limerick Tumbler) or, more relevantly, to compete in races from distant points to test the birds’ exceptional homing instincts.

Long-distance pigeon racing is now an international enthusiasm, and most developed countries have racing unions. Last month some 26,000 pigeons were released in a marathon race from Barcelona, crossing the Pyrenees to reach home lofts in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands. In China, one race challenges pigeons with flights of more than 1,900km, incredible tests of both navigation and sheer survival.

In Ireland races are much shorter, from release in Rosslare to home lofts in Dublin and Belfast. Ambushes by east-coast peregrines are the owners’ biggest fear, as even a failed attack can send a highly valued pigeon fleeing off course – minus, perhaps, a few tail feathers – to end up in someone’s garden on the other side of Ireland. (And, no, the owner will not want it back.)

In the UK, with some 60,000 pigeon owners, a highly organised lobby, the Raptor Alliance, has been seeking legal recognition of the birds as “livestock” deserving protection from predators in wildlife legislation. A poisoning of peregrines in Wales in 2012 brought police raids on the homes of four pigeon fanciers.

In Ireland recourse to darker direct action has been apparent for 20 years, and also in recent shootings and poisonings.

An enlightening study of the fortunes of peregrines breeding on the inland and coastal cliffs of southeast Ireland from 1981 to 2001 was undertaken by Dr Declan McGrath of Waterford Institute of Technology and published in the Irish Naturalists’ Journal in 2002. An early increase, to 11 breeding pairs in 1991, he wrote, “may have been facilitated by an enhanced food supply provided by passing pigeons”.

A marked decline in breeding success thereafter, achieved by seven pairs, was matched to “intentional disturbance at many of the accessible coastal eyries” and the appearance of poisoned pigeon carcases tied to cliff-top fence posts. McGrath concluded that the peregrine population of the southeast “is now comparable to that recorded there at the turn of the century and is constrained . . . by deliberate persecution”.

In 1900, as Robert Ussher and Richard Warren recorded, almost all the eagles had been exterminated from Ireland, but the peregrine “fairly holds its own wherever cliffs afford it suitable haunts”.

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