Scaling the heights – with the Salisbury Cathedral peregrine falcons

It was the perfect opportunity to talk with expert Granville Pictor about the peregrines. 

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Inside the tower, there is a live stream of the ‘famous’ Salisbury Peregrines and the birds are nesting just through a small door on the balcony. It is not possible to approach the birds as they are incubating eggs but it is possible to hear them. 

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Granville Pictor is a member of the Wiltshire Ornithological society. He explained that the nesting falcons could have been around since 2018, but they have no way of telling. 

He said: “The female is larger than the male but they do look very similar so you need to see them together.”

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Peregrines are known to travel at exceptional speeds when trying to catch their prey. The old record in the Guinness Book of Records states that peregrines can go into a stoop and catch their prey at 242 miles per hour.

Granville said: “It was probably artificial. It was done in America, in 1999 by a guy called Franklin. He was a skydiver and had a pet falcon. He went up to 17,000 feet in a Cessna aeroplane and leapt out, and his colleague released the bird and the bird followed him down vertically. She had a small speedometer attached and after several attempts, logged 242 mph which seemed amazing.”

On average, it is likely the birds fly at 80mph although could reach speeds up to 180 mph. 

When peregrines hunt, feral pigeons are a favourite food. They will take Jackdaws, also smaller birds too, blackbirds, song thrushes, and occasionally, woodpeckers too as they tend to fly in a straight line so may not be able to manoeuvre out of the way in time.

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The peregrines also clearly hunt at night when the Cathedral is backlit, and have been using the lights at the cathedral to chase prey up into the sky after dark. 

Granville said: “It is an amazingly fast evolution.”

Salisbury Cathedral is the most famous nesting place in the UK for peregrine falcons, but in the last 20 years, the numbers of peregrines using manmade structures have increased phenomenally.

He said: “The peregrines chose to nest on the south side of the cathedral here which was a bit surprising because it is in the full sun although they have a parapet wall, and we have actually built them a sun shade. Nothing but the best for them.”

If peregrines survive beyond the first year, they can live on average for 5 or 6 years but some have lived for 15 years or even, 20 years. 

Granville added: “When the chicks leave the nestbox and are almost ready to fly, they have to leap about 3ft up to get onto the parapet wall. We have had a number of fallers. One young peregrine last year landed in the grounds of the cafe. It was put in a box and returned to the tower.”

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