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Part 26 - The Peregrine Falcon and the Mistle Thrush

Peregrine Falcon - Falco peregrinus

This, famously, is the fastest living thing on the planet. Sources vary considerably in their estimates of the speed of the peregrine’s hunting dive or “stoop” but the minimum figure given is 180mph and some estimates are much higher. Peregrines came close to extinction in Europe and North America 30 years ago. A book published in 1980 speaks of “ a catastrophic decline almost throughout its range which began in the 1950s; (and which ) still continues in many countries”. The reason was the use of persistent poisons - organochlorines - in seed dressings. Pigeons ate the seeds - and the poisons - and these accumulated in their fatty tissues but without actually killing the birds. However, when peregrines - and other birds of prey - then ate these poisoned birds, the toxins became concentrated in the bodies of the predators, either killing them outright or adversely affecting their ability to breed. The chemicals - DDT was the most notorious - were eventually banned in many parts of the world but populations of this splendid birds were slow to recover and peregrines are still absent from some of the eastern areas of North America. In Britain, however, they are now flourishing.

In Sussex, peregrines have now not only returned to the sea cliffs they formerly occupied, like those at Beachy Head, but have also moved inland to take up residence at places like the disused concrete works near Steyning. The pair made homeless by the disasters at Brighton’s West Pier were very quick to take up the offer of a purpose-built nesting site closer to the city centre at Sussex Heights, where they have successfully raised many young over the last few years. Meanwhile, another pair occupied a chalk cliff site just to the south of the Cuilfail tunnel outside Lewes. Although birds do indeed go on peregrinations, birds seen in Kingston are more than likely to be of local origin.

Like sparrowhawks and merlins, peregrines feed mostly on other birds, though they have been recorded as killing rabbits and hares, squirrels, amphibians and reptiles. Prey is usually killed on the wing but whereas sparrowhawks don’t always have the power to kill quickly, death by peregrine is normally very rapid indeed. If the bird’s mid air strike doesn’t account for the prey immediately then not many victims survive long after hitting the ground.

Peregrines are heavily built and about a third again the size of kestrels. They are dark grey above, often looking black in poor light, and pale underneath with a very pronounced moustachial streak. As is almost always the case with birds of prey, females are markedly bigger than males.

Look out for them on the Downs! They probably visit us far more frequently than you might imagine.

Mistle thrush - Turdus viscivorus

Do you have any mistletoe in garden? If not, what about holly or hawthorn? Mistle thrushes were named are the first of these (Latin words for mistletoe - viscum - and to eat - vorare) but will try and commandeer any good supply of berries and ward off any rivals, including much larger birds. There are reports of mistle thrushes attacking jackdaws and magpies and even one account of a thrush which knocked over a peacock that it felt was too close to its nest!

This is a big, pale thrush with a very distinctive flight, a little like that of a woodpecker in that it closes its wings for what seems like a long time but without causing pronounced looping undulations. In flight the pale undersides of its wings can sometimes be clearly seen. On the ground it can be quite bold as it hops about in search of food. Its song is loud and slightly mournful and begins very early in the year or even before the end of the old one. It also has a grating call, often given in flight, rather like the rattles that I remember being waved around with such enthusiasm at Highbury and White Hart Lane in the 1960s. (Why I broke all the tribal rules of football supporters and watched both Arsenal and Spurs is a long tale, for which there is no space here!).

It’s not a common bird in Kingston but there are probably several pairs in and around the village. It needs scattered trees and usually nests in one. Nests can be quite high up, often in a fork. Breeding takes place quite early in the year and parties of young thrushes can sometimes be seen on the Downs in the spring before many other birds have even finished nesting.

Mistle thrushes have some wonderful local names, the most common of which is turncock, from its habit of singing in strong winds or other bad weather, but my favourite is “Big Mavis” which is from lowland Scotland.

I’ve yet to record a mistle thrush in my garden but would be interested to hear from anyone who has.



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