WHEN those attending a wedding at St Mary’s Cathedral, Kilkenny exited the Gothic structure after the happy event they were pleasantly surprised to be immediately showered by confetti. However, there good cheer turned to frowns when, on closer inspection, they found they were feathers.
When they looked up to the side of the 152 year old place of worship, they saw a large bird eating a pigeon with the plumage continuing to fall, in a scene that could have been taken straight out of an Edgar Allan Poe story.
The Peregrine Falcons of St Mary’s Cathedral are lords of all they survey. They are the fastest creatures in the animal kingdom and they have an enthralling impact on people.
The ones that hang out on the cathedral have caused controversy by killing racing pigeons, which seem to be a speciality for them and a bit of gourmet compared to their usual diet of magpies, common crows and other species.
The Peregrines have a following and many people, sit in the park benches at James’s Green admiring the greatest and most successful of all hunters.
Like all the best, they have adapted to their environment and have turned, more and more, to killing by night.
Martin Egan has great admiration for the Peregrine Falcons and has noted that they perch on top of the small cross just a few feet from the top of the cathedral tower waiting for their prey.
Because of the amount of light they can see whatever moves in the air and once a Peregrine swoops and pounces, a smaller bird has no chance, is killed by the impact when the falcon crashes into it and snatches it in its claws. It is gruesome but it’s survival of the fittest and part of the chain of life.
Martin Egan said that migrating birds, who think they are safe flying in the dark are caught in this manner as are woodcock and other game flying under the cover of the night sky.
Because there are limited places where peregrines can nest in Ireland, the National Parks and Wildlife Service wants to build a nesting platform on top of the cathedral to help build up numbers. Jimi Conroy is the Kilkenny conservation ranger with the service and he too is a huge fan of the birds. He said that while the birds sleep (roost) in the cathedral, they will not breed there because they need a bigger nest space.
He is to approach the church authorities this week on the issue. Mons Kieron Kennedy of the cathedral said that he would be anxious to help out with what he described the birds of pray. “We are always on the look-out for new members of her flock,” he added.
The Peregrines are the aristocrats of the avian world and the only animal with which they can be compared is the cheetah, the fastest land mammal.
Not everyone agrees that these birds of prey should be protected. Some pigeon fanciers (who race their birds) want them removed from the city because they are killing and eating their valuable pets. However, Mr Conroy has pointed out that it is only the slow and weak birds which the peregrines go for and he feels they are not a threat to pigeon racing. He said that most pigeon people realised that but there needed to be further education to bring others on side.
There have been instances in other parts of the country where poison has been set in an attempt to kill the birds.
Mr Conroy said the two birds in the cathedral were born a few miles from the city in a quarry on what is described as a cliff and that the mother would have pushed them out of her territory when they were a year old because they would be competing with her for food.
Residents of Blackmill Street like Mick O’Boyle notice that all the small birds scatter when the peregrines are present even though the clawed killers have their eyes on bigger prey. The area around the cathedral is free of any magpies and crows which roost nearby lead a very precarious life.
Another man who has a keen interest in the birds is Pat Durkin of Birdwatch Ireland. “They are fantastic birds and we need to protect them because there are very limited places where they can nest and live in Ireland,” he said.
There are another group of peregrines in the county and they have nested in an old house near Galmoy and again they are being monitored by Mr Conroy.
St Mary’s Cathedral (built at Windy Arbour) is generally accepted as being the highest point in the city and it makes a fantastic viewing area for a bird of prey on the prowl. Of course the surrounding lighting, both public and private makes it easy to see their prey.
The Peregrine Falcon has a body length of almost two feet and a wingspan of four feet.
The back and the long pointed wings of the adult are usually bluish black to slate grey with indistinct darker barring; the wing tips are black. The white to rusty underparts are barred with thin clean bands of dark brown or black. The tail, coloured like the back but with thin clean bars, is long, narrow, and rounded at the end with a black tip and a white band at the very end. The top of the head and a “moustache” along the cheeks are black, contrasting sharply with the pale sides of the neck and white throat and the beak and claws are black. The upper beak is notched near the tip, an adaptation which enables falcons to kill prey by severing the spinal column at the neck.
The Peregrine Falcon is often stated to be the fastest animal on the planet in its hunting dive, the stoop which involves soaring to a great height and then diving steeply at speeds commonly said to be over 200 mph, and hitting one wing of its prey so as not to harm itself on impact.
The air pressure from a 200 mph (320 km/h) dive could possibly damage a bird’s lungs, but small bony tubercles on a falcon’s nostrils guide the powerful airflow away from the nostrils, enabling the bird to breathe more easily while diving by reducing the change in air pressure. To protect their eyes, the falcons use their nictitating membranes (third eyelids) to spread tears and clear debris from their eyes while maintaining vision.