“Favourite Avian Questions” – with answers provided by Nick Dixon, Devon Raptor Expert with more than 20 years’ experience studying the St Michael’s Peregrine Falcons, and Richard W. Parker, Archeologist, Architectural Historian and St Michael’s Building Group lead.
- When was St Michael’s Church, Mount Dinham, built?
During 1867-68 and consecrated 29 September 1868. The architect was Major Rohde-Hawkins, and the benefactor William Gibbs of Tyntesfield, in memory of John Dinham, an Exeter Tea Merchant who had built the nearby school and cottages.
- When did the St Michael’s Peregrines first nest?
In 1997, though Peregrines had been observed visiting the site for about 10 years previously.
- How many peregrines are at the church?
An adult pair have been present since 1997, breeding every year with occasional changes of both male and female peregrines. During this period they have reared 51 young (by June 2014).
- What is the height of St Michael’s spire?
73 metres or 230 feet; the nest box inside the spire is at a height of about 35 metres or 110 feet.
- What kind of nest do they make?
They don’t make nests but create a ‘scrape’ in soil or substrate on a safe ledge in which to lay their eggs. They will also use old nests of raven (as occurred at the church in 1997) or buzzard. Our Peregrines now use the nest box within the spire, which is unusual, if not unique. It gives the chicks protection from the weather and predators, and seems not to be unhealthy for them.
- When do they lay their eggs?
In England, usually in the week after the Spring equinox (20 March) at approximately 2 day intervals.
- About how many days between laying and hatching?
Typically 30 – 34 days. Our chicks have hatched at 34 days after the 3rd egg is laid for the past 2 years.
- How many young do they have?
1 to 4 young per year, usually 3 or 4. In 2014, our peregrines laid 4 eggs but only 3 hatched. During 2020, three eggs were laid but sadly did not hatch. In total, 59 young have fledged since 1997 (up to March 2021).
- About how long are the young in the nest before they fly?
Typically 40 – 42 days. in 2013 the male chick fledged after 6 weeks exactly and the females 2 days later. In 2014 the male fledged on Saturday 7 June and both females 1 day later.
- What do they feed on?
Birds caught in flight. Feral pigeon is their main prey and I have recorded remains from over 100 different bird species at the church.
- Where do they hunt?
Anywhere within their territory, probably about a three mile radius of the church but mainly within a mile. They are very territorial, so ours is the only Peregrine family in the city of Exeter.
- How far can they see out of the spire trefoil window?
Nick Williams said he could see Exmouth (9 miles) when he fitted the nest box, and peregrines have much better eyesight than humans.
- How many young have they fledged over the years?
51 young at June 2014. (Awaiting updated figures..)
- What is their wing span? How big are they?
For an adult female, the wingspan is about 96 cm or 3 feet, and slightly less at 84 cm for a male. They are crow sized, but the adult male is smaller and lighter, 2/3rd the size of the female.
- What are their colours/plumage?
Adults are slate blue upper with white underparts horizontally barred with black. They have a dark hood, upper cheeks and moustache. Juveniles are browner with vertical streaking on the breast.
- How long do peregrines live?
They can live to over 15 years, but have high mortality in their first year of independence. The average lifespan is probably 5 – 8 years.
- What are their enemies (or who!)?
Man is their main persecutor, but foxes will prey on the young if they are on the ground or if the nest can be accessed.
- What are their special features? How fast can they fly?
Peregrines are the fastest creature on the planet. A falconry bird was recorded at 240 mph in an experiment in the USA, but they will rarely attain that speed. They have evolved to fly fast and catch birds in the air, and will regularly reach over 100 mph in a hunting stoop.
- Where do they come from? (locally and internationally)
They are traditionally found on tall sea cliffs and upland crags, but now also in many towns and cities across the UK. Peregrines are now found once again on every continent except Antarctica. They can live anywhere except deserts, ice fields and tropical rainforests.
- Why are they called “peregrine” falcons?
Their scientific, Latin name is Falco Peregrinus. Peregrinus means wanderer or pilgrim in Latin, though ours are now resident.
- What makes the St Michael’s peregrines so special?
St Michael’s Church was the first man-made site/building occupied by peregrines in the south west and the first church in the UK with regular breeding, following the peregrines’ recovery from the crash in numbers, which was caused by pesticides in the 1960s.
- Do you think they like hearing the Choir rehearse? Do they like incense?
I am sure they chose St Michael’s Church because of the choir, but I doubt they have ever smelt the incense due to the winds swirling around the spire. However, the birds may have re discovered the health benefits of frankincense here, which after all originated in Africa and the Arab world, where peregrine falcons have a very rich history and tradition. Interestingly, since the COVID pandemic began in 2020 with the associated restrictions placed on social gatherings and especially singing, including for church services, the nesting pair at St Michael’s has not produced any young and no fledglings have been seen over the skies of Exeter since 2019.