The Canadian Peregrine Foundation


Article 5:
Hunting is learned behaviour, not instinctual

by Kenn Chapman

From our vantage point last year, Mark and I were able to make some observations of behaviours that we couldn't find documented anywhere in the literature. Very simply, all the skills that a falcon uses to hunt and catch birds for food must be learned from the parents; these skills are not instinctual.

First of all, for a few days after the chicks first fledged, the parents continued to bring birds to them already killed and plucked. Then they began calling the fledglings over to the feeding perch first, then proceeded to show them how to pluck the feathers from them before eating them.

About two weeks after fledging, they were given the next important lesson. Kingsley brought a pigeon to the feeding perch, where the fledglings were waiting, and dropped a pigeon down on the roof for them. But the pigeon wasn't dead! It's wings were broken so it wouldn't fly away, but it could still hop about on the roof. The fledglings were then encouraged to pounce upon the pigeon and practice the killing by breaking the pigeon's neck. The parents continued bringing pigeons to the feeding perch in this manner for about a week.

Then came the most important lesson of all. One of the fledglings was waiting on the feeding perch for dinner to be brought to her. Kingsley arrived with a pigeon, but instead of landing on the feeding perch, he landed on the ledge near the nesting site - across the street. The fledgling cried out several times that it was ready to be fed, but it soon became apparent that if she dinner, she would just have to fly over to get it. At exactly the same time the fledgling left the feeding perch, Kingsley let go of the pigeon; again, it wasn't dead yet, just crippled. Quickly the fledgling had to make the decision: if she wanted that pigeon, she would have to dive for it. And dive she did. That fledgling did not go hungry that night.

During the last couple of weeks of August, we witnessed more coaching sessions. By now the fledglings were flying well, and getting stronger each day. Several times we watched as a fledgling and a parent would circle around and around, watching for an available pigeon. Sitting off to the side, watching, were the other fledgling awaiting her turn, and the other parent.

Given the amount of training the fledglings received from the parents, the conclusion has to be that hunting skills are not instinctual for peregrine falcons, but must be learned. This is not to suggest that falcons don't inherit certain instincts and traits, but hunting skills do not seem to be among such traits.

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