Book of the Week: The Peregrine and Modern Aviation

View Full Size ImageWhile it’s no secret that birds are amazing creatures, what may not be common knowledge is the role that some birds have played in the development of human technology. Specifically, the role Peregrine Falcons played in the development of jets.

The general description of the Falco peregrinus on EOL describes the relationship between the Peregrine Falcon and modern aviation:

“Falcons are known for their high speed flight, and the Peregrine is thought to be the fastest bird, accurately clocked at 90 meters per second…in the making of airplanes, especially jets, humans came onto a problem. As planes got faster and faster, the engines started choking out at a certain speed. It seems that the air, instead of going into the cowl of the engine, encountered a wall of still air and engine cowl and so split and went around the engine. Puzzled, the researchers wondered how the falcons could still breathe at such incredible speeds. Looking at the falcon’s nostrils, they found the answer. In the opening of the nostril is a small cone that protrudes a bit. Fashioning a similar cone in the opening of the jet engine, they discovered that the air could pass into the engine even at great speed. Once again a human invention is preceded by an animal adaptation.” (Chaffee Zoo 2007)

While the role the Peregrine Falcon played in the development of the airplane may be unknown to most, the role that humans played in the survival of this species is perhaps more commonly understood. The conservation status of the Peregrine Falcon was, until recently, decidedly grim, as the use of a variety of chemicals threatened the well-being of this bird. The use of pesticides resulted in an accumulation of small quantities in the tissues of small birds and mammals, of which the Peregrine Falcon’s diet consists. These accumulations “become concentrated enough in predatory birds, such as falcons, to kill them or render them incapable of producing offspring. Organochlorine pesticides (DDT and dieldrin) have been proven to reduce the birds’ ability to produce eggshells with sufficient calcium content, making the egg shells thin and more likely to break. Peregrine falcon populations dropped precipitously in the middle of the 20th century. All breeding pairs vanished in the eastern United States.”

Fortunately, the story ends well for this species. “A successful captive breeding and reintroduction program, combined with restrictions in pesticide use, has been the basis of an amazing recovery by peregrine falcons. Now the use of many of the chemicals most harmful to these birds is restricted.” As a result of these combined efforts, after over twenty years’ time on the federal list of endangered species, the Falco peregrinus was finally taken off of the list in the 1990s. Thus, the “incredible recovery of peregrine falcons has become a perfect example of how effective human conservation can be.”

This week’s book of the week, A Dictionary of Birds, by Alfred Newton (1893-96), takes a historical and descriptive look at the Peregrine Falcon, discussing first how the term “Falcon,” over the course of nomenclatural history, was commonly applied quite liberally to birds of the Linnean genus Falco (containing many un-related birds of prey) , but later came to be separated into five distinct groups, of which the “typical” falcon is “by common consent” the Peregrine. The author then takes the time to go into a detailed description of the Peregrine Falcon.

Take a few moments to investigate the Peregrine Falcon, both within this week’s book of the week and on EOL. And take a moment to reflect that, just as the Peregrine Falcon influenced the development of modern aviation, so too have many other species enabled further advancement for humans throughout history. Indeed, humans have much still to learn from nature.

This week’s book of the week, A Dictionary of Birds, by Alfred Newton (1893-96), was contributed by the MBLWHOI library.

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