Peregrine Falcons Attack Their Prey With Missile-Like Precision

Image: Flickr/Ed Dunens

Peregrine falcons are superstars of aerial precision, plummeting to the earth at up to 200 miles per hour to catch small birds in flight.

But scientists have long wondered how exactly the birds manage to consistently hit their mark while plunging towards their prey at such breakneck speeds. Recent research sheds new light on their amazing aerial assaults, revealing that peregrine falcons have a lot of common with military missiles.

To investigate, researchers from Oxford University gathered data by attaching tiny backpack-like harnesses containing cameras and GPS devices to individual birds and putting them to work. Eight falcons completed a total of 61 flights, in which they chased decoy birds attached to lures.

Sample onboard video of a captive peregrine attacking a food lure thrown upward a short distance by the falconer. Video provided by study authors

After reviewing the footage, the researchers determined that the falcons were utilizing the exact same law that engineers used to develop missiles for moving targets. Known as proportional navigation, the principle is essentially a method of tracking slight changes in the line of sight between the pursuer and the target. This strategy is much more effective than attempting to constantly interpret the speed and direction of the target.

“Falcons aren’t doing complicated computations to figure out where the target is going to be, but the behavior that you see almost looks as if they do,” Graham Taylor, author of the study and professor of mathematical biology at Oxford University, told NPR. “There is an elegance to the fact that it’s the same thing control missile engineers have ended up at.”

Image: Mike Bair/ Flickr

Using this law, small adjustments can be made mid-flight, ensuring a precise attack. Surprisingly, high speeds actually result in better maneuverability; but the falcon needs to stay hyper-focused to maintain its trajectory.

Watch peregrine falcons in action below:

Here’s a video of a peregrine taking out a mallard:

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