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The return of the peregrine falcons

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The peregrine falcon in brief

The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) has the largest distribution of all large falcons: the species is found throughout the world, excepting Antarctica and New Zealand. This is chiefly due to its very efficient hunting method: it attacks medium-sized birds (pigeons, starlings, thrushes, gulls...) in the air, chasing them horizontally at full speed or plunging after them from high in the sky. The peregrine falcon can dive at 300 kph, its wings folded, which makes it the fastest animal on earth.

The peregrine falcon is simply built for such speed, with a stocky streamlined body, pointed wide-based wings and a wingspan that's often more than a metre. Furthermore it is steely grey above, and has an obvious pale spotted breast and typical facial stripes.


'Peregrine' is an old word for 'pilgrim' or 'traveller'. Indeed, this falcon owes its name to the fact that, since its nesting places couldn't be located in the middle ages, it was considered a migratory bird. In the 1950s the numbers of peregrine falcons started declining, due to poaching (shooting, egg stealing), but especially to the agricultural use of pest control products (such as DDT).

Smaller organisms absorb the poison from the pesticides together with their food. An animal higher in the food chain, eating many of these poisoned organisms, will amass high concentrations of poison. This process is called bioaccumulation. The peregrine falcon, as a predator on top of the food chain, accumulated a lot of poison in the 1950's. This made it prone to infertility, fragile eggs, and, eventually, even death.

The last sighting of a breeding pair of peregrine falcons was back in 1958. The species disappeared completely from Belgium in the 1960's. But a ban on harmful pesticides and protective measures throughout Europe resulted in its slow recovery, and even a real comeback in the last years... But this required the help of many organisations and volunteers.

Picture of the cathedral

The pair of peregrine falcons chose to raise its offspring in the south tower of the cathedral.

Picture of a peregrine falcon

Peregrine falcon
© Guy Robbrecht, FIR

Picture of the male peregrin falcon on the cathedral tower

The male of the breeding pair on the cathedral tower
© Didier Vangeluwe

The Peregrine Falcon Project

In 1995, the Raptor Conservation Fund (RCF) set up a programme for the protection of peregrine falcons. Special nest boxes have been erected on high buildings, power pylons, and nuclear power station cooling towers. As a result forty pairs are breeding in Belgium by now.

The Museum of Natural Sciences provides scientific support, especially its bird ringers, who ring and count the species.

This cooperation has even brought about a success in the heart of Brussels: a pair of peregrine falcons is breeding in the St Michael and St Gudula's cathedral for two consecutive years. Immediately after the discovery of the eggs, a camera has been installed next to the nest, sending images to a screen in front of the cathedral. Passers-by can watch this live show not only during the day, but also at night, through infrared photography!

This project is realised in cooperation with:
the Raptor Conservation Fund
the Ornithological Commission of Watermaal-Bosvoorde

City of Brussels
Brussels-Capital Region
Police district Brussels-Capital-Elsene
The dean and the wardens of St Michael and St Gudula's cathedral

Les Entreprises Louis De Waele plc

Last modified : May 07, 2007