Purple Martin Response To Circling Peregrine Falcon

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Steve Kroenke
Posts: 4342
Joined: Fri Nov 28, 2003 6:49 pm
Location: Louisiana/Logansport

Purple Martin Response To Circling Peregrine Falcon

Every year our two purple martin colonies have a magnificent visitor. Now this visitor would dearly love to eat some of our martins and I have seen him/her try a number of times. But in only one case that I observed did this visitor get to taste a martin; in all other cases the martins out flew and out maneuvered the visitor. This visitor is a peregrine falcon and this beautiful raptor is making a comeback in numbers and I am seeing more of them every year.

Most peregrine falcons migrate over our colonies in late April and continue until almost mid-May; the latest I have seen one has been May 20. I do see some peregrines in March, but mainly in April and May.

So it was most unusual to see a male peregrine falcon circling over our colonies this morning in February! The male is smaller than the female and he almost looked like an oversized merlin. A big female peregrine is almost crow size and she is quite impressive in flight. He had long pointed wings and using my binoculars I could see his distinctive heavy black sideburns. When he banked several times, I saw his slate gray back. I did notice he was missing several wing feathers.

This morning our martins had been acting wary and this is usually a sign that a falcon or Accipiter hawk is patrolling the area. So when I noticed some high flying martins start climbing rapidly and other martins at their nests suddenly dart inside their gourds/houses, I knew that a raptor was approaching.

Sure enough I looked up and about 100 yards above my martin colony was the male peregrine slowly flying in circles as he looked for any martin flying below him. None were as they knew better! Several male martins made mobbing passes at the peregrine and he even bank some to the side as he drifted away. However, most martins were high above the peregrine and these martins had nothing to fear.

As I mentioned earlier, I have only observed one successful capture of a martin by a peregrine and this capture was most unusual. It really wasn’t even an attack but more like a sneaky opportunity. In this case, I observed a large female peregrine flying slowly high up over our two martin colonies. There were some martins flying in the area, but none emitted any alarm vocalizations. It was as if the martins were paying little attention to the Grim Reaper!

I then watched the peregrine slowly fly toward a martin way up in the sky. The martin just seemed to be “floating” in the air and making no effort to fly away or climb to safety. The peregrine almost behaved like an “aerial feathered cat” as she crept up on the either asleep, in shock or just plain stupid martin!

Incredibly the peregrine simply grabbed the martin which made NO effort to fly away or make any escape maneuvers such as banking to the side or downward. Using binoculars I could easily see the small martin dangling from this large falcon’s talons and she probably ate this snack size meal while in flight. This martin certainly won the “Darwinian award for stupidity” and was eliminated from the gene pool!

All the unsuccessful attacks by peregrines on martins I have witnessed clearly showed that martins can escape from these raptors when the martins KNOW the peregrine is attacking and the martins can use their superior maneuverability to dodge the talons and eventually climb above their nemesis. Nearly all these attacks were short dives or level pursuits by peregrines after WARY martins rather than power dives from way up in the sky. A high flying peregrine diving down on UNWARY martins probably has a much better chance of securing a meal when the martins are caught off guard and can’t execute quick banking actions.

Though it is a little unnerving to see a bird eating peregrine falcon circling our martin colonies, I must admit it is an honor to see one of these majestic raptors in the wild. And to realize that martins, if they KNOW the peregrine is there, will often escape any attack with their incredible aerial maneuvers. I wonder if this peregrine is wintering in our area or is he just “passing through”.

Steve
PMCA Member
300+ pairs of martins each season
bwenger
Posts: 1046
Joined: Thu Jul 14, 2005 7:24 pm
Location: Pennsylvania/Espyville/Pymatuning Reservoir Area
Martin Colony History: Taking care of 11 active public colonies and trying to start two more in northwestern PA. Also attempting to restart another one in southwestern PA, in Collier Township's Hilltop Park. In 2017, not sure what happened but the ASY male returned and then a couple of weeks later he was gone. It could have been weather related. No other birds showed up. I had a starling nesting at the Public site that I had trouble getting rid of.
In 2018, we fledged 629 martins at all of the sites.

Steve,

Great detail on this visual sighting and I always enjoy your articles.

Hope you have a great Martin year.

Bill
JeanS
Posts: 115
Joined: Sun Jan 14, 2007 9:08 pm
Location: Sugar Land, TX
Martin Colony History: 2002 -Coates metal houses- about 18 pairs
2005 - Added a gourd rack- many more pairs
2007 - Added another gourd rack, gave the Coates houses away
2008-2015 - Experimented with many gourds & a few racks (its a sickness) fledged over 200 chicks/year. Hubby keeps records, not me. :-)
2016 - 64 gourds and expect most will be occupied

Steve,

Thanks for sharing your observation. I have seen Swainsons and Cooper's Hawks take our PMs. But never a Perigrine. As a bird watcher, I find all bird behavior interesting. I enjoyed reading your post even though it had a sad ending for the purple Martin.
Jean S
2002 - Coates metal houses- about 18 pairs
2005-2007 - added a gourd rack, then another gourd rack = many more pairs
2008-2015 - Experimented with many gourds & a few racks (its a sickness) fledged over 200 chicks/year
2016 - 64 gourds and expect most will be occupied
DornCounty
Posts: 2172
Joined: Tue Feb 14, 2012 3:58 pm
Location: Rural SE Kansas
Martin Colony History: .
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Trio-Jedi

peregrines are one of the finest birds in all of nature. That said they are perfectly designed to catch other birds.

One of the more impressive things I have ever seen was a peregrine strafing and catching shorebirds. And if you know shorebirds, they are some of the more agile flyers out there.
2017 - Home & Public Colonies - 300 Cavities
Steve Kroenke
Posts: 4342
Joined: Fri Nov 28, 2003 6:49 pm
Location: Louisiana/Logansport

Hey Bill,

Thank you for those nice remarks. I enjoy studying nature at a detail level and sharing my observations.

I hope you have a great martin season, too.

Steve

Hey Jean,

I have seen untold numbers of Cooper's hawk attacks on our martins, particularly martin fledglings. Next has been migrant sharp-shinned hawks and almost as many migrant merlins which are incredibly fast small falcons and can overtake martins even if the martins have well over a hundred yards head start! But I have NEVER seen a merlin fly down a martin in a tail chase and the martin always escaped through quick banking actions, dives and climbs. Merlins, just like the Accipiters, usually catch a martin by ambush, when the martin doesn't have time to fully use its agility to out turn a merlin/Accipiter or they exploit the chaos of martins bolting from their nests.

The peregrines are such special raptors almost royalty! So when one shows up over our colonies it is a special treat even though the martins must be wary and not let their guard down.

Thanks for sharing your comments and enjoying observing nature!

Steve

Hey Dorn,

I agree that the peregrine is a FINE bird and a bird hunting specialist.

I have observed over a dozen attacks by migrant peregrines on our purple martins, including at least four in 2014. And peregrines don't necessarily make those stupendous dives from high in the sky on prey below. Just like you observed, peregrines will make low level attacks something like their smaller cousin the merlin often does and chase birds out in the open over pastures and water. Martins can't out dive a peregrine but they can often out turn this large falcon to avoid the talons as long as the martins KNOW the peregrine is closing in. In 2014 I watched a large female peregrine attack a small group of fleeing martins over a small pond located not far from our colonies. The martins twisted and turned very close to the water to avoid the peregrine which then climbed up and then attacked more martins that were bolting from Bob's colony. She was less than 20 feet off the ground but was unable to match the martins' banking actions and they escaped. When she tried to connect with a martin, the martin would bank sharply to the side and the peregrine would miss.

Thanks for sharing your observation about a peregrine strafing shorebirds. I have read where shorebirds are favorite prey items of peregrines.

Steve
PMCA Member
300+ pairs of martins each season
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