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200 MPH Fast Dives Help Peregrine Falcons Maneuver to Catch Agile Prey

Friday, April 13, 2018 10:49
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Computer simulations of peregrine falcon attacks show that the extreme speeds reached during dives from high altitudes enhance the raptors’ ability to execute maneuvers needed to nab agile prey that would otherwise escape. Robin Mills and colleagues of the University of Groningen, Netherlands, and Oxford University, UK, report this discovery in PLOS Computational Biology.

Though the peregrine falcon is described as the fastest animal on Earth, it is not the fastest when in its level flight which is only in the range 40 to 55 mph but in fact, when in its hunting dive. Experiments done have demonstrated that the diving speed of the peregrine falcon exceeds 200 mph.

By attaching video cameras and GPS trackers on a Peregrine falcon, prior research by the team showed that falcons attack their prey using the same steering rules as man-made missiles. But it remained unknown why peregrine falcons choose to catch prey by diving from great heights at speeds faster than any other animal. Such risky behavior surely places extraordinary physical and cognitive demands on the falcon.

The image is a snapshot of the simulation in action. A stooping peregrine falcon (blue trajectory) is about to intercept a common starling (green trajectory) that maneuvers erratically to evade.

Image by Robin Mills.

To investigate the peregrine’s dive strategy, Mills and colleagues built a physics-based computer simulation of bird flight that pits falcons against prey. The simulation incorporates the aerodynamics of bird flight, how birds flap and tuck their wings, how falcons perceive their prey and react to it with delay and how falcons target their prey like a missile.

By running the simulation millions of times, varying the falcon’s attack strategy each time, the researchers showed that high-speed dives enable peregrines to produce much higher aerodynamic forces for maneuvering, thereby maximizing their chance of seizing agile prey.

Still, the simulation showed, high-speed dives require very precisely tuned steering for a falcon to attack successfully, revealing that the stoop is a highly specialist hunting technique. The research team found that optimal tuning of the mathematical laws that control steering in the simulation corresponded closely to measurements of steering for real falcons.

Peregrine falcon
File:Peregrine Falcon (32211893995).jpg
Credit: Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren / Wikimedia
The research team is now extending their simulation to explore why different raptor species, including the goshawk and the sparrow hawk, have unique attack strategies, and to identify why different raptors often specialize on different types of prey. They are also studying the best escape tactics that prey can employ to evade capture.
“Our simulations reveal why peregrines have evolved to dive from great heights, and at speeds faster than any other animal,” Mills says. “Ultimately, we aim to understand the arms race between aerial predators and their prey that has led raptors to become some of the fastest and most agile animals on Earth.”

Contacts and sources:

Robin Mills

Citation: Mills R, Hildenbrandt H, Taylor GK, Hemelrijk CK (2018) Physics-based simulations of aerial attacks by peregrine falcons reveal that stooping at high speed maximizes catch success against agile prey. PLoS Comput Biol 14(4): e1006044.

Freely available article in PLOS Computational Biology:


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Total 2 comments
  • stevekando

    I think there may be more to it than that.

    On a straight country road at high speed in a Vantage engined Aston Martin DB6, I drove over the crest of a slight rise to see party of 5 or 6 maintenance workers slap-bang in the middle of the road.

    There was panic and chaos as men ran in different directions and one of them was just frozen to the spot.

    Even in a car that could stop very quickly from a high speed there was no chance to slow very much – but my speed relative to theirs produced what seemed to me to be a very interesting phenomenon.

    It was as if the men were running in slow motion – so slow it was easy for me to pick a safe path without hurting anybody.

    (Yes, I was out of order – but it wouldn’t have hurt if they’d put a warning sign up to indicate what they were about to do.)

  • 2QIK4U

    I found a baby about twenty years ago just sitting on the path so wrapped him up and had him about five years before I sent him to Australias best sanctuary, fastest and hardest hitting birds in the World. He got to about two foot tall and nearly a three metre wingspan. I only gave him away because people were offering $30,000 and over $100,000 if I sent it to Saudi Arabia my answer was sending them a photo of the falcon in it’s new home, with four rangers also in the picture. Great feeling to extend this rare breed by placing him in a breeding program. Oh and it’s illegal but he’s a healthy falcon ;)

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