It’s small. It’s sleek. It’s the fastest animal on earth. And, it’s at Pickering Nuclear Generating Station.
Reaching speeds of over 300 kilometres per hour in its trademark dive, the peregrine falcon is one of nature’s most impressive predators. Once extirpated from Ontario due to widespread use of DDT, an environmentally devastating pesticide, the high-flying bird of prey is making a sweeping comeback.
According to the Canadian Peregrine Foundation (CPF), there are now more than 80 pairs living in Ontario, which are designated species of special concern. It’s a significant improvement from the late 1960s, when the birds were entirely absent from Ontario's skies. The first pair of peregrines only reappeared in 1986, thanks to an intensive recovery strategy.
It’s not too surprising a pair have nested at Pickering. Tall buildings mimic the falcons’ remote cliff sides in the wild, and Pickering even has southeast exposure –the falcons’ favourite.
The peregrines are less picky when hunting. They’ll readily target a
selection of sparrows, pigeons and even ducks. In fact, peregrines’ hunting prowess has been celebrated in falconry for more than 3,000 years. Even now, some businesses hosting peregrines have reported significant pest control savings since the birds moved in.
A peregrine’s hunting style is as graceful as it is brutal. Plunging downward in a trademark 90-degree dive known as a "stoop," the falcons will gather speed before punching their prey out of the sky with their talons. The peregrines will then drop into another stoop to catch their falling meal, or simply pick it up when it hits the ground. According to National Geographic, one peregrine falcon reached a speed of 389 km/h during its stoop –a big feat for a bird approximately the size of a crow.
Although adults can live around 10 years in the wild, with some outliers reaching 17 and even 20, raising chicks is more difficult business. According to the CPF, around 80 per cent of young falcons won’t reach adulthood, usually dying when fledging or during their first migration. In 2014, Pickering Nuclear employees and volunteers from the CPF teamed up to rescue Flash, the station’s only successful chick, from a violent storm.
With such a low success rate, peregrines are understandably defensive of their nests. The adults will make aggressive swoops toward perceived threats and vigorously defend their food caches, which are located around the nest site.
Peregrine falcons mate for life, and will usually return to the same nest year after year. A nesting box has been installed at Pickering Nuclear, and the CPF is banding and monitoring the birds to ensure their well-being. This year brought two new males called Curie and Sievert, named after units of radioactivity to commemorate their birthplace.
Hosting the peregrine falcons reinforces OPG’s commitment to protecting biodiversity. Ontario is home to some of the most interesting species on the planet, and it’s our role as environmental stewards to take reasonable steps to preserve them for future generations .