'Cleo' Peregine falcon
'Cleo' Peregine falcon
Photograph on archival fibre based cotton rag paper
112 x 89 cm, 44 x 35 inch (standard)
'Cleo' Peregine falcon 2014 ©Leila Jeffreys
If ever there was a ‘raptor’ supermodel, a Peregrine Falcon would be it. Cleo captivated me on our first meeting. Her long, sleek muscular body and intricate, patterned feathers, topped off with an air of refinement, made me feel like an awkward ugly duckling in her presence.
But Cleo is so much more than just a beauty. She could represent Australia at the Olympics, as Peregrine Falcons are the fastest animal on earth. When hunting they perform what is called a ‘stoop’ — a free-fall dive from great heights that was tracked at reaching 389km/h (242 mph). Peregrine Falcons mate for life and the grown-ups tend not to move house – they maintain a home range of 20 square kms. Although they are found throughout Australia (and in other parts of the world), they are still a rare and glorious sighting.
The Peregrine Falcon’s story is all the more remarkable considering that not long ago they were almost extinct in some places. With extensive pesticide use (especially DDT) in North America making its way into the food chain, Falcon populations dived in the 1970s and they were listed as critically endangered. Being a top predator, these birds absorbed so much of the pesticide that their eggshells thinned and the young died before they could hatch.
Scientists lobbied the government and DDT was finally banned in North America in 1972 but it took until 1987 to ban it in Australia. DDT takes years to disappear completely from the environment, so an enormous conservation effort was mounted to ensure the Falcon eggs hatched successfully. One method involved scaling high cliffs where the birds nested, taking the eggs from the nest and replacing them with warming ceramic eggs to keep the parents happy.
The real egg was then hatched in an incubator brooder so there was no weight placed on the thinning shell. With the use of hand puppets and vocal mimicry, the chicks were fed and then returned to the nest for the parents to raise. Thanks to these elaborate conservation efforts, the Peregrine Falcon is now off the endangered list and we can still admire supermodels like Cleo in the wild.