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For many years, Loyola has been the wintering grounds for one or more Peregrine Falcons, Falco peregrinus.  As in most wintering peregrines in the eastern United States, they appear to be the subspecies F. p. tundrius, the palest of the forms of this marvelous bird.

Peregrine Falcons are a global species, and exist on every continent except Antarctica.

Our birds arrive in New Orleans around September/October, stay all winter, and leave in or around April.  Their summer home and breeding grounds include the tundra of far northern Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.

The fastest animal alive, Peregrine Falcons can stoop (dive) at speeds in excess of 200 mph!  They use this speed as bird feeding specialists, catching their prey on the wing.  Thus not only speed, but also maneuverability, are extremely important to them.

When in town, they are often seen flying around campus, and over adjacent neighborhoods, Tulane University, and Audubon Park.  Dr. Dan Purrington, Professor Emeritus of Physics at Tulane and a renowned local bird enthusiast, saw one flying over one of Tulane’s quads on September 24, 2014 – his “first of the season” (FOS). 

When not on the wing, they are often observed sitting atop or around the ledges of Holy Name Catholic Church and similar sites on Marquette Hall.  Dr. Donata Henry, a professor and ornithologist at Tulane, often watches them from a balcony on the fourth floor of the Tulane Boggs Center for Energy and Technology as the birds perch on the Loyola letters on the west side of Buddig Hall.

Peregrine Falcons faced potential extirpation in the United States back in the 1960s.  The widespread use of DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides concentrated the chemical in the environment, especially around the mouths of major rivers like the Mississippi.  These chemicals either directly killed the birds or interrupted their capacity to breed.  As a top predator, Peregrine Falcons got a huge dose of these chemicals due to biomagnification up the food chain, which caused a thinning of their egg shells by disrupting their calcium cycle.  As a result, over a short period of time, there were massive nesting failures and the population plummeted. 

Following public outcry and the resulting laws that regulated the widespread use of DDT and related chemicals, accompanied by an extensive program of captive breeding, hacking (a process of raising and releasing young birds), and restocking lost populations of peregrines, the species is recovering and the Peregrine Falcons once again give us a thrill with their annual visits to campus and points all along the Gulf coast.

Clarifying comments are needed regarding the subspecies we see along the coast in winter.  There is variation in patterns among peregrines, often in slight gradations, and there is often debate among excellent birders about the identity of an observed bird.  Avid birder David Heckard of the Audubon Zoo observed peregrines that were darker, had green and purple identification bands on them, and were verified to have been hacked in Minnesota.  The rehabilitator who banded them said they are the subspecies F. p. anatum, thus verifying that our winter birds represent more than one subspecies. Noted birder Mac Myers opines that F. p. anatum were at one time greatly reduced in numbers in their natural range, and he thinks F. p. tundrius (and maybe some mixed falconer birds) were hacked into the range of F. p. anatum.  He further recalls that F. p. tundrius populations were in much better shape.  He thinks today coastal Louisiana has lots of pure F. p. tundrius, possibly some pure F. p. anatum, and a fair number of intergrades, the latter resulting from (in other’s opinions as well) natural intergradation and mixed breeding in captivity.

Typically, F. p. tundrius breeds across the northern reaches of our continent and migrates during the northern winter as far south as Argentina and Chile.  Many stop along the way, and presumably some of those prefer coastal Louisiana.  Falco p. anatum are typically non-migratory, but we have data, from David Heckard's observations, that at least some banded individuals are showing up in Plaquemines Parish during the winter months.  Ornithologists and falconers Tom Coulson and Dr. Jennifer Coulson recall two banded peregrines arriving at the Audubon Institute Wildbird Rehabitliation Center, one originating in Alaska and the other in Greenland.

Naturalists were shocked and confused when Peregrine Falcons precipitously declined in the 1960s, and there was much initial debate about the causes.  Now we find interesting assortments of at least two subspecies of peregrines spending their winters in our coastal zone, and we are having equal difficulty coming to terms with their origins and subspecies assignments.

Go figure.

In the absence of molecular studies of winter birds, we are left to speculate on the basis of variable color patterns and a handful of banded birds.

One thing I know, we will solve this mystery by analyzing a multitude of observations by the community of very observant and dedicated Louisiana birders.
 

Peregrine Falcon, Johnson Bayou, Louisiana, October 2014. Photo by Thomas Finnie.

Peregrine Falcon, Cameron Parish, Louisiana, October 2014. Photo by Thomas Finnie.

Two "Loyola Peregrine Falcons" on Marquette Hall, Loyola University New Orleans, December 21, 2001. Photo by Bob Thomas

Same. Photo by Bob Thomas