The Majestic Peregrine of Malibu

1996 Gerard V. Haigh

The Peregrine Falcon was standing on a small boulder at the edge of the Malibu lagoon. I stood stock still, gazing in awe at this legendary bird which had magically appeared before me.

The Peregrine was the most prized of raptors in the days when falconry flourished as the sport of royalty. The Kings of Europe, the Shoguns of Japan and the Sheiks of Arabia were willing to pay small fortunes to possess one of these birds. In recent times, oil-rich Mid-eastern Princes have been reported to have spent as much as $100,000 for a single falcon.

The Peregrines are celebrated among falconers for their spectacular style of hunting. They dive from great heights in pursuit of their prey at speeds up to two hundred miles an hour, moving faster, perhaps, than any other living organism.

When I first arrived at Malibu Lagoon, I saw that the tide was low and that a mudflat was exposed in the center extending the length of two football fields. Although an island had arisen with the receding water line, very little ground was actually visible because it was covered by a white mantle of living birds. Among them were more than a thousand California Gulls, large lumbering birds, most of which had probably been reared at Mono Lake. There were hundreds of dainty Bonaparte Gulls, looking like swallows of the sea. A couple of dozen pelicans were hanging out together at the far side of the spit and numerous sandpipers and shorebirds were running around singly and in small groups in and out among the larger birds.

Because the mudflat was no more than a hundred feet from shore, I approached the water's edge cautiously, not wanting to disturb the birds. However, except for a few ducks which swam away from the shore in front of me, none seemed to pay attention to my presence.

After I had scanned this vast avian array, noting about a dozen species, I walked along the shore toward the ocean. That is when I suddenly saw the Peregrine!

He stood like a sentinel on the alert, with dark penetrating eyes, moving his head back and forth, continuously scanning his surroundings. He, too, seemed undisturbed by my presence, allowing me to approach within twenty yards. I knew him to be a raptor by his enormous bright yellow talons. They looked large enough to grab a goose. I was reminded that the word "falcon" comes from a Latin word for sickle. Those claws grasping the boulder did indeed look like golden sickles. I knew this falcon to be a Peregrine by his black helmet, handsomely contrasting with his throat and breast.

While I was watching, the Peregrine took off and flew out over the lagoon. Instantly, every bird took flight! The mudflat was bare! Thousands of gulls were in the air, all heading out to sea.

How did they all sense the danger so quickly and simultaneously? Prey birds seem to recognize the shape of predators by instinct. Konrad Lorenz has shown that newborn chicks can differentiate a plywood silhouette pulled across the barnyard. When it is pulled in one direction, it looks like a falcon and the chicks run for cover. When it it pulled in the other direction, it looks like a goose and the chicks continue feeding. (See accompanying illustration, if you want to include one.)

The instantaneous collective response I had witnessed was probably generated by the genetic structure of the gulls and had probably been locked in as an instinctive behavior over the past ten million years.

The Peregrine flew to the end of the flock then turned and flew alongside it. He made a few feints at individual gulls and then, just as he reached the beach, he swooped down at one which was close to the sand. He missed on all three of these attempts, which was not surprising since the gulls were all highly aware of his presence. Predators usually count on surprise in order to capture prey. I lost him as all the birds moved out to sea.

A few minutes later, however, the peregrine came back, flying over the lagoon in the opposite direction from before. At the upper end, he began to soar in circles, rising higher and higher. He got smaller and smaller in my binoculars and when I dropped them momentarily, I couldn't see him with my naked eye. Nor could I find him again in the glass when I tried. I kept staring into the area where he had disappeared. After a bit, I thought I saw a spot moving downward. I got carried away by a fantasy.

In my fantasy, the spot got larger amd larger until it took the form of a bird. It was the falcon diving very, very fast! At the bottom of his dive, he crashed into a duck which was flying over the lagoon. I had an instant fear that the collision might be fatal to both. The duck was tumbling inertly down, almost like a wooden decoy. But the falcon was still very much alive. He flew under the duck, turned upside down and grabbed it with his talons. Then he turned right side up again and flew off with his prey to disappear among some willows on the far side of the lagoon.

I was exhilerated by the sheer explosive power of my fantasy. I was completely captivated by that majestic falcon. I felt him to be an extension of myself. It was I who had terrified thousands of gulls, sending them fleeing out to sea. It was I who had soared to a height beyond the power of humans to see and from that height, I had spotted a teal and took aim. I had dived in pursuit at express train speed. I had stunned my prey with my hurtling body then plucked the duck right out of the air.

Caught up in this exciting imagery, I understood perfectly why falconry had become the sport of kings and why the Peregrine had become the most prized falcon of all.

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