Many birds of prey have special adaptations that help them survive; owls can’t move their eyes so they have necks that turn almost 270 degrees, while kestrels eat a diet of small rodents and so have shorter beaks than most other raptors. The peregrine falcon, meanwhile, takes its specialism to the extreme.
Found on all the continents except Antarctica, this bird is a formidable predator. A combination of sharp talons, a hooked beak and lightning- fast reflexes makes the peregrine capable of seizing medium-sized birds in midair. However, that wouldn’t be possible were it not for one major attribute: speed. The peregrine falcon is the fastest animal ever to have lived with a maximum velocity of over 320 kilometres (200 miles) per hour.
So how does this bird achieve such great speed and, indeed, use it to its advantage? Well, first it gains a height advantage over its prey and then it uses surprise for a stealthy ambush. To gain sufficient height, the peregrine ascends by flying in tight circles to rise up through warm columns of air known as thermals. Once a good vantage point of over a kilometre (0.6 miles) has been obtained, the falcon trains its eyes on an unsuspecting victim, before using gravity and a technique known as the rapid stoop to swoop silently down.
A stoop is a high-speed dive from high altitude, and during such a descent the peregrine falcon reaches speeds three times faster than the fastest land animal – the cheetah. As well as using gravity to perform these highly controlled dives towards the ground, the peregrine can also boast a number of anatomical attributes that help it achieve such record-breaking aerial acrobatics.