Arctic Refuge Virtual Bird Fest

Songs From On High: Peregrine Falcons

U.S.Fish&Wildlife Alaska
3 min readNov 16, 2021

From river bluffs in America’s northernmost wildlife refuge to the city skyscrapers of New York City and beyond, the world’s fastest bird calls every continent except Antarctica home.

digital depiction of a bird with an eye in the center and sky above
a raptor in flight with blue sky above
Peregrine falcon in flight by Dena’ina Athabascan designer Sebastian Garber. 📷 Michael Todd/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Alaska is home to all three of subspecies of peregrine falcons found in North America: the Peale’s, Arctic (tundra), and American. Some winter in South America while others stay in Alaska year-round.

bird of prey perched on a branch and quartered away
A peregrine falcon. Note the distinguishing sideburns. 📷 Kyle Tansley/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The largest and darkest-plumed of the peregrines, Peale’s (Falco peregrinus pealei), are a maritime subspecies found along Alaska’s coast from Southeast Alaska to the Aleutians. Peale’s tend to stick to their territory and overwinter in Alaska, but will leave if food becomes scarce. The Arctic (F. peregrinus tundriu) and American (F. peregrinus anatum) subspecies migrate.

Most peregrines from northern Alaska, Canada, and Greenland migrate to Central and South America in the fall — sometimes all the way to Columbia, Chile, and Argentina — hunting along the way. They return to interior Alaska in mid-late April and can be seen soaring the thermals above the Alaska Range on their way north to their breeding territories (most return to the same river bluffs and cliffs to the same nest sites).

bird of prey standing on a dead seagull
Peregrine falcons are able to reach speeds 175mph+ in a dive and hunt other birds on the wing or by flushing them up from the ground.They feed primarily on other birds, such as songbirds, shorebirds, ducks, and — in urban areas — starlings and pigeons. 📷 Dorian Anderson/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Last century, the migrating varieties were hit hard by DDT exposure in the lower 48 states and elsewhere along their migration path. Both the American and Arctic subspecies declined precipitously mid century and were both listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 (the law preceding the Endangered Species Act of 1973). Thanks to ESA recovery efforts and reduced use of DDT throughout their range, both subspecies have recovered.

Retired Arctic Refuge biologist Fran Mauer with a peregrine falcon chick on the bluffs of Arctic Refuge’s Porcupine River.

kak, creak, wail and chitter

Adult peregrines have several vocalization types with different meanings for different situations. So look to the sky, and to the ledge, for context clues.

Wailing. Along continuous call used in a variety of situations (antagonistic, parental, looking for a mate, etc.). Sounds like ghiii-ghiii-ghiii-ghiii.

Creaking. Peregrine-to-peregrine vocalization used in courting rituals and other situations. Sounds like iiichep/ee-chup.

Kakking. Alert call used against non-peregrine enemies, or to recruit other peregrines for defense of a nest. Sounds like kak kak kak.

Chitter. A close contact sound between mates. A rapid chi chi chi.

In Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the peregrine is known as qiirayuli. In Yupik, this means “the one who calls qee qee qee qee” when disturbed. In higher latitudes, other names include, but aren’t limited to: Ch’akwaii chan ts’ik (Gwich’in) and kirgavich kiriat (Northwest Alaska Inupiaq).

brown bird of prey with spotted tan chest perched on a branch
📷 Kyle Tansley/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Arctic Refuge Virtual Bird Festival: #ArcticBirdFest

Katrina Liebich is based in Anchorage, Alaska.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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