Nova (1974–…): Season 45, Episode 16 - World's Fastest Animal - full transcript

The peregrine falcon reaches high speeds to become the world's fastest animal; bird trainer Lloyd Buck attempts to get his peregrine, Moses, to go faster.

Are you wondering how healthy the food you are eating is? Check it -
The peregrine falcon...

The world's fastest animal.

Falcons in general
have evolved to be fast

and peregrine falcons
have evolved to the extreme.

Living on the edge
of what is physically possible,

they seem to challenge
the very forces of nature.

They can reach speeds three
times faster than a cheetah...

Withstand forces of gravity,

twice that of fighter pilots...

And will fearlessly attack prey
double their size.

To understand
their supernatural abilities,

we're going to see the world

through the eyes
of this young peregrine.

He's going to be
a little pocket rocket I think.

And his unusual family.

Go, go, go, go!

We'll learn what it takes

to become an elite
high-speed hunter.

And by following
a young family of peregrines

in downtown Chicago...

Some of the world's
leading scientists...

He's absolutely locked on.

The pupils wide open.


We'll reveal the secrets
of the world's fastest animal.

Right now, on "NOVA."

Major funding for "NOVA"
is provided by the following:

At over 100 miles per hour,

peregrines can launch
a high-speed attack.

They are one of the deadliest
predators on the planet.

Like their cousins,
the hawks and owls,

they have sharp talons
and keen eyesight.

But what makes them lethal

is their ability to do something
most other birds of prey cannot.

They climb to great heights...
and dive.

By folding their wings

they can reach speeds
around 200 miles per hour...

to intercept and kill
their fast-moving prey

in mid-flight.

It's a skill so remarkable
it must be seen to be believed.

Their hunting prowess
has made them

one of the most
widespread predators on Earth.

They live on every continent,
except Antarctica...

from coastal cliffs...

to arctic tundra.

Peregrine falcons
are almost unique

in being virtually world-wide.

The birds from the farthest
north in the Arctic,

migrate the farthest south, all
the way down to South America.

Birds at our latitude
in the central United States

often don't migrate at all,
they're sedentary.

But they're all recognizable
as peregrine falcons.

Peregrines have adapted
to almost every habitat.

So what is the secret
of their success?

To find out,
we need to go back...

When all the potential
of this high-speed flyer

is held within one tiny egg.

In the waiting room
of a captive breeding facility,

a rather unusual parent is
patiently awaiting an arrival.

It's captive breeding that's
rescued peregrine falcons

from the brink of extinction.

You're taking a long time,
aren't you?

Are you going to come out
and say hello?

Lloyd Buck grew up
with a passion for birds.

Good boy, clever boy.

Now, he and his wife Rose
have a very special family

of all types of birds...
Including Arnie, Lily,

and Moses, a four-year-old
peregrine falcon.

Lloyd and Rose love and care
for all of them.

Good boys.

With their feathered charges,

like these two barn owl chicks,

they educate children
about the importance

of protecting birds in the wild.

They also train them
to star in films.

But it's the peregrines
that Lloyd most loves to train.

As he puts his four-year-old
peregrine Moses to the test...

He'll reveal what makes

such effective, high-speed

They're my ultimate bird,

I've loved peregrines
since I was a young boy.

As much as you fly them
and as much as you get

that bond with them

there's always that little bit
of wildness still there.

And now, there will be
a new addition to their family.

This egg is from a captive
pair of peregrines.

The chick inside
begins to cut a perfect line,

using a tiny bump on its beak,
known as an egg tooth.


60 hours of waiting.

No sleep and all of a sudden
they've just gone crazy.

It's amazing to see.

Wow, look at that!

He's nearly out.

And to think
that this little chick,

in about 45 days' time,
will be fully grown

and have everything it needs

to be the fastest animal
on the planet.

Over the next few months,
with Lloyd's expert guidance,

the tiny chick will learn
to master every skill

needed to fly and hunt
like a wild peregrine.

In the wild, peregrine parents
have just 12 weeks

to teach their chicks
everything they need

to be a high speed predator.

In traditional coastal habitats

peregrines raise their young
on cliff ledges

in nests called eyries.

Here there is ample prey
to feed the family,

and room for juveniles
to chase and learn to hunt.

But, these adaptable birds
have recently moved

into a whole new world...


One city
provides a perfect window

into their high-speed lives.

Chicago, home to 2.7
million people...

and more than 20 pairs
of peregrine falcons.

This metropolis may not seem
like a wildlife haven,

but unlike many other animals,

peregrines are thriving
in cities.

Peregrine falcons only need
two things to really prosper.

One is high spots to nest,

and so ledges on skyscrapers
and bridges provide

ample nesting sites and
flying birds as a food source.

And cities have a wealth
of birds...

Feral pigeons and starlings
and house sparrows.

So cities are wonderful places
for peregrines to be.

And here in Chicago,
as many as six nests

can be found in one square mile
of downtown real estate.

It's now early May.

In the window box of this
28th floor apartment,

a female peregrine
has three hungry mouths to feed.

She makes a sharp call
to encourage them

to open their beaks wide.

Her partner soon joins her
on the balcony.

This family is called
the Perrys.

For the last three years,

they've made their home
on this balcony,

watched by the man
who lives here, Dacey Arashiba.

This rare situation provides
an incredible opportunity

to see what it takes for wild
peregrines to grow up in a city.

At just a few days old,

the chicks need
regular brooding.

When the chicks first hatch,
they're completely helpless,

they can't even
keep themselves warm.

So the female treats them
as if they're still eggs.

She sits on them, broods them,

she does that
for the first two or three days.

While the female
tends the chicks,

the male has his work cut out,
hunting their next meal.

But city living has
some surprising advantages.

As the sun beats down
on Chicago's buildings,

it generates rising
thermals of hot air... ♪

Helping him to lift off and soar
almost effortlessly.

Chicago's waterfront location
also attracts

an abundance of migrating
birds... potential prey.

Peregrines normally hunt
during the day,

but street lighting means
24-hour hunting... ♪

Much needed help
when feeding a growing family.

Now, at seven days old,

the chicks have already
fully opened their eyes.

Peregrines rely on their vision
to spot and track their prey

at incredibly high speeds.

This sense is critical
for their survival.

But just how good
is peregrine eyesight?

To find out, Lloyd's
headed to the Lake District

in northern England,
with Moses...

A peregrine he's raised
over the past four years.

He's wearing a falconry hood,
to keep him calm.

Lloyd's enlisted the help

of avian sensory expert
Graham Martin.

They will test how far Moses
can see down the valley.

First, they fit him
with a GPS telemetry device

which tracks the exact distance
he's flying.

Moses is trained to fly
towards a bright yellow lure

which Lloyd throws and catches.

For the first run Lloyd
positions himself

one kilometer,
or .6 miles, away.

Okay, Graham, hood is off.

Hood is off.

He throws the lure
straight up in the air,

trying to catch Moses' eye.

Gone, off, gone, gone, gone.

200 meters.

Very straight track
to you, 400 meters.

On the GPS,
the straight track shows

he's locked onto his target.

500 meters.

Crossing the stream now.

800 meters.

Which is more than can be said
for Lloyd.

Where is he?

Just crossing over the river.

Ha, there he is, here he is!

Hey, hey hey hey.


I've got him, I've got him.

I had no idea where you were
my boy till that last second.

Spotting the lure at .6 miles
seems easy enough for Moses.

But how will he fare when Lloyd
doubles the distance?

Now. Hood is off. Hood is off.

Even at 1.2 miles... Come on, Mo.
Come on.

Moses heads straight
for his target.

1.6 kilometers.

1.9 kilometers.

Oh, here he is, here he is.

Two kilometers.

- Good lad.
- Bird must be with you.


Look at that,
it's actually brilliant.

Well what do you think, I think
we can just go for broke.

Do you want to try the three?

I think that would be
a real push

but we ought to try
if he's so easily done 2K.

So yeah, let's try 3K.

Three kilometers, 1.8 miles.

So Graham's on that track
in the very far distance.

It is amazing though,
it's such a small thing

really for him to see
at that distance.

Peregrine eyesight
is twice as sharp as a hawk's.

But spotting a lure
this far away

is an incredible challenge...
No one is sure Moses can do it.

Hood's off, hood is off.

Still looking down the valley,
still looking for you.

Still looking...
and he's off, he's off.

Keeping quite high.

Moving back towards us.

Coming right overhead now.

Just gone overhead.

Moses appears to be struggling...

He circles to try and pick out
the target.

Moving towards you.

Come on my boy, come on.

Moving away from us now.

And he locks on.

Definitely picked up
a straight line now.

1.4... 1.8.

Come on!

Just going directly
away from us.

2.8 kilometers,
must be very close to you now.

Come on.

2.9 kilometers.

What a boy!

You top man!

He's on the lure,
he's on the lure,

so he's done it.

You are a mean machine!

Come on.

Amazing, Graham.

I'm quite impressed with him
to be honest.


Well done.


Incredibly, the GPS telemetry
device shows Moses

spotted the lure from almost
two miles away.

Good boy.

Well done, young man.

So exactly how is he able
to do it?

Peregrines have large eyes

taking up at least
50% of their skull.

For us, it's only 5%.

The optics of the eye project
an image of the world

onto the retina...
Shown here in red.

The most important part
of the retina

is called the fovea.

It's responsible for seeing
objects in fine detail.

It's where light-sensitive cells
called cones

are most concentrated.

But the peregrine has two foveas
on the retina of each eye

allowing it to see more
of the world in detail.

The first is for spotting
close objects.

Here, the peregrine
looks through both eyes,

using binocular vision.

The second is for spotting
things far away.

the peregrine looks sideways,

through one eye at a time.

So to spot a target
almost two miles away...

Moses turns his head

as if staring through
a telescope.

As he closes in,
he switches to binocular vision

which gives
very accurate information

on the location
of his fast-moving target.

This superior eyesight
gives peregrines

a big hunting advantage.

Any of the species

that you care to think of
that he preys upon,

his vision is so much better.

For something like a pigeon,

he's four times better
in his acuity.

This means a peregrine
can spot its prey,

and gather speed for an attack,

long before its prey knows
it's coming.

So at three kilometers, say,
he can see the prey,

but the pigeon wouldn't see him

until he was only three quarters
of a kilometer away.

The vision difference translates

into a really important
time difference

when you're actually
hunting prey.

This is a crucial advantage,

especially when it comes
to feeding a growing family.

The Perry family
certainly is growing... and fast.

The Chicago chicks are now
five weeks old

and about 30 times heavier
than when they hatched.

They've been ringed,

sexed, and named by
The Chicago Peregrine Program.

This is Tyler, his
sister, Commodore,

and brother, Fred.

Each will be monitored

as part of North America's
population of peregrines,

which was nearly wiped out
in the 20th century

due to the insecticide DDT.

We didn't realize at the time

that it accumulated
through the food chain.

And for peregrine falcons,
the primary effect it had,

was to cause the female
to lay thin-shelled eggs.

So they'd break.

It didn't take very long
before populations

of the most affected birds
began to crash.

In 1972, DDT was banned,

and soon after
captive peregrines

were bred
and released into the wild.

Peregrine falcons
have responded dramatically

to conservation efforts.

Their numbers have rebounded

So much so that peregrines
are now thriving

in diverse environments,
even in our homes.

Today the newest member
of Lloyd's family has come home.

It's been 12 weeks
since Lloyd watched him hatch.

Good boy.

He's now fully grown.



You all right?

Oh, he's lovely.

He is, isn't he?

He is, he's a real sweetie.


Lloyd's called him Rudi.

There he is, little Rudi.

I don't think we've ever had

a falcon so calm so quickly.

Over the next few months,

Lloyd will teach him the skills
a young peregrine needs.

But first, it's critical
that Lloyd earns his trust.

He must sit quietly
and avoid eye contact.

This helps Rudi relax and
he tucks in to his first meal.

It's an important step,
as now, training can begin.

Using the traditional art
of falconry,

Lloyd will teach Rudi
to hunt a yellow lure.

He starts with a line attached
to Rudi's foot for safety.

First, a small hop.

That was brilliant,
he's a good boy.

So he's just building that bond,

and now I've got this lure,
and it's a good game.

Then a little further... Rudi!


You didn't brake Rudi,

that's what your tail's for.



And with no string attached.

Good boy.

So that's his first
free flight today.

He's shortcut

the whole process by about
four days,

because he's progressed
at his own speed,

which is what you want.


Finally, he needs to catch it
in the air.


Good lad, here.


Ooh, nearly.

Ooh, good boy.

Good lad!

In less than a week, Rudi has
learned the goal of the game.

He responds to the lure
as if it is prey

and understands he needs
to catch it in the air.

Luckily, juvenile peregrines
have a secret to help them

hone their hunting skills.

Of course this year he's in
his juvenile plumage year.

So his tail's a bit longer,

his primaries are little,

and they're slightly
softer feathered

in their juvenile year,

to allow them room for error
it's thought,

so they can hone and learn
their hunting skills.

Next year, that tail will get
a little bit shorter

and the feathers will come
stiffer and harder.

This sleeker plumage is thought
to help adult peregrines

to fly faster.

But fewer than half of
peregrines make it to adulthood.

Learning to catch food
at high speeds isn't easy.

You couldn't get a better
example, really,

of survival of the fittest
than with these guys.

They've got to be at the top
of their game all the time.

Once their parents stop feeding
them and they're fledged,

they're on their own, literally.

Back in Chicago,

it's just seven weeks
until the chicks go it alone.

And they need up to 11 meals
a day to sate growing appetites.

Luckily, their parents
are expert hunters...

And the city
provides abundant prey.

A city diet can consist of over
a hundred different species,

many not even found in less
developed environments.

And their favorite?


But they can be a challenge
to catch.

In a straight chase, a pigeon
can reach 50 miles per hour

and weave and dive among
city buildings for cover.

But even between the buildings,

peregrines can execute a perfect
strike at lightning speeds.

Just like this.

So how do peregrines
catch their prey?

Lloyd and avian expert
Graham want to find out more.

But first they need
to simulate a hunt.

Meet the prey drone,

designed by gadget guru
Chris Watts.

It's capable of performing
aerial maneuvers

that mimic bird flight.

And with safety guards and an
on board camera,

it's the perfect device to film
a peregrine in hot pursuit.

For the battle arena,

a secluded valley
in the U.K.'s Lake District.

So are you set?

I'm all set, yeah.

Okay, going up now?

Yeah, yeah.
You happy?


It's the prey drone.

Get your position.

Against Moses, Lloyd's
four-year-old peregrine.

Let's go.

Go, go, go, go!

Go, my boy.

Bird's gone, bird's gone.

Wow, look at that,
straight after it.

Not yet, stay as you are, stay
are you are, stay as you are.

Climb, climb, climb, climb,
climb, climb!


Shall I come back down?

No, no, hold your height,
hold your height.

Hold it there, hold it there.

Dive, dive, dive, dive, dive!

No matter what
the prey drone tries,

the result is the same.

Got it!

Oh, yeah, I felt that.

Every time.

That's it,
I think he got it then.

Just like that.

See that?

So how does Moses pull off
a perfect strike?

His long, pointed wings offer
little drag,

allowing him to fly faster,
helping him to close in.

But he rarely chases
directly after the drone.

Instead he aims his attack ahead
of the drone's current position.

Recent research suggests that in
order to intercept his target,

as Moses approaches the drone,

he reacts to its movements

to keep it in his line of sight.

He can then close in

to intercept the flight path
of his quarry.

But what about the strike?

The drone camera provides a rare
and unique view of this moment.

Right, Let's have a look.
Here we go.

Just so you know,
this is, this is real time,

this is how quickly
it actually happens.



That's so fast.

Wow, real time is very fast.

We'll need to see that
much, much slower

to understand what's going on.

We should be able to just go
through frame by frame and...

There he is, there he is.

Look at that, he's still
absolutely stable.

The pupils wide open, absolutely

he's absolutely locked on,
feet well spread, talons spread.

There then, look.

The strike took
just one fifth of a second.

But the final component
of a perfect catch

is a set of deadly tools.

Their feet have
callous-like pads for extra grip

and talons to lock
onto their prey.

Like other raptors,

their long toes work as
a ratchet mechanism.

Once their feet grip their prey,

they don't need to clench
their muscles to hang on.

But it's the powerful beak
that makes the kill.

A horn-like bump called
a tomial tooth

is used to dislocate
the prey's neck.

These deadly tools and an
elite targeting system combine

above the Chicago skyline...

to produce
a perfectly timed strike.

This is an essential skill for
all young peregrines to master.

But first,
they need to learn to fly.

And in a city,
this can be treacherous.

That very first year
after leaving the nest

is the most dangerous year
for them.

And the greatest cause is
hitting stationary objects.

As young birds,

they know how to pour
on the steam,

but they often don't know
how to stop or maneuver,

and they hit things.

The nest is down to two.

Tyler has made his way
onto the ledge above.

His siblings seem more cautious.

But their parents are trying to
entice them away from the nest

by carrying their next meal
out of their reach.

If the chicks want food,

they'll need to take
a leap of faith.

Tyler tries for the roof
of an adjacent building,

but landing is tricky.

Luckily, a balcony saves
the day.

And soon,
his courage is rewarded

with a meal from his parent.

A few days later,

Tyler greets his sister

Finally, Fred joins
his siblings.

The trio are unlikely to return
to their birthplace

on the balcony again.

Now that they are fully grown,

the typical size difference
between genders is clear.

Like all female peregrines,

Commodore is roughly
a third bigger

than her brothers.

This difference in size

is thought to allow
a peregrine pair more variety

in the prey
that they are able to hunt.

For the fledglings,

the first few days are full
of challenges.

They have difficulty adapting
to Chicago's famous wind...

Navigating obstacles... ♪

And they simply don't know
which areas to avoid altogether.

Thankfully, their parents are
still providing food,

although not for long.

Time for
a more advanced lesson...

The food pass.

Adults share kills this way.

No luck this time.

So the mother arrives
to show how it's done.

In the wild,
the food pass is instinctual,

but they practice it with
their parents' encouragement.

Lloyd and Rose take the place
of parents

to train five-month old Rudi
how to do it.

Since Lloyd can't fly,
he's using a car.

Rose, there's a bit of rain
coming in soon,

so let's head back to base.

It can cruise along
at 25 miles an hour,

slow enough as to not tire out
young Rudi.

And its open top allows Lloyd
to safely pass Rudi the lure.

Slower, slower,
hold it there, hold it there.

Quicker, quicker, quicker.

Oh, come on.

There he is, here he is.




We're nearly at the end.



Have to stop.

Yeah, stop.

Rudi, hey!

Even after several tries,

Rudi doesn't manage to catch
the lure.

...stop, Rudi.

He's going down.

Yeah, he's down.
Good lad.

On there.


There's a good boy.

Time for round two.

Okay, go.

Here he goes.

Go, go, go, go, go, go.

Quicker, quicker,
quicker, quicker.

Quicker, quicker.

Faster, faster.

Hey, hey!

Incoming, slower.


Now speed up Rose,
yeah, go for it,

go for it, go for it!

Faster, faster, faster,
flat out,

flat out, flat out,
flat out, hey.



Hey, hey, incoming.

And slower, not yet, okay.

That's it, yeah quicker,
quicker, quicker,

go, go, go, go, go, go!

Go, go, go, go!

Hey, hey, hey, slower, slower.

Ready, ready, ready, he's yours.


Good lad.

Finally, a perfect strike.

Good boy.

Ah, that was brilliant.
There he goes.

Rudi has learned to chase down
and catch a target...

In a simulated food pass.

In Chicago,

the eight-week-old fledglings
have become proficient flyers.

They spend hours chasing
each other.

What looks like play

is also essential
to hone their hunting skills.

But a poorly timed practice
can turn perilous in an instant.

When a fledgling tries to grab
live prey...

it fails and pulls out,

leaving its diligent parent
to pick up the dropped food.

This is unusual behavior
for an urban peregrine.

They rarely venture close
to the ground,

as the city streets are
too dangerous.

The peregrine parent manages
to fly away unscathed.

But there is still
one final skill

for the fledglings to master
before they reach independence...

Perhaps the hardest and
most perilous of them of all.

It is the peregrine's
greatest hunting strategy

and the key to being
the fastest animal in the world.

In flat flight,

a feral pigeon is an even match
for a peregrine falcon,

and it can often get away.

So a peregrine has to have
another strategy.

It builds altitude,

gets the thermals
to help it get up into the air.

And then when it sees
a prey item flying by,

it folds its wings,
and it starts to plummet.

It is evolved to be
the fastest animal on the planet

when it is in a steep dive
or a stoop.

In the stoop,
peregrines reach speeds

of around 200 miles an hour,

to catch even the fastest birds.

The stoop is their
most iconic aerial maneuver.

But how do they dive so fast?

To find out,

Lloyd's brought his
four-year-old peregrine, Moses,

to one of the highest cliffs
in Britain.

Fleetwith Pike stands
a staggering 2,126 feet

above the valley floor.

And to entice Moses down?

The drone is back.

At the bottom is aerodynamic
scientist Christoph Bruecker,

recording Moses' speed
using GPS telemetry.

Come on, Mo.

This is it, my boy.

He's looking.

He's looking.

Keep moving it around, Chris.

He like... he's gone, he's gone,
he's gone,

full stoop, full stoop.

There he goes.

Holy smoly.

No, it's already
at 150 kilometers per hour.


Wow, great.

Hi, Christoph.

He looked pretty good
from up here,

he went off
like a little rocket.

What, what kind of speed
did we get?

So the maximum speed what we get

was 170 kilometers per hour.

Well done, superb.

Moses reached
over a hundred miles an hour

in just two seconds.

Although this is a relatively
leisurely pace for a peregrine.

They will only go as fast
as they need to.

But watching peregrines stoop
like this

has helped Christoph
to understand

how peregrines reach top speeds.

In the laboratory,

he and his team have created
exact replicas of peregrines

and placed them in wind tunnels.

These experiments are revealing
how a specific body position,

called the cupped wing,

might help peregrines reach
high speeds.

In this streamlined shape,

drag is reduced and air
is directed under the wings

through a narrow channel.

When air is squeezed into a gap,
it flows faster,

helping to increase
the peregrine's speed.

This is the Venturi effect.

Formula 1 cars use
the same principle

to increase grip and go faster.

Research suggests that by using
the Venturi effect,

the peregrine can reach speeds
up to 150 miles an hour.

To increase its speed further,

it's thought the bird wraps
its wings around its body

and effectively goes
into free fall...

A rare, high-risk maneuver,

as no wings means no control.

Any error could result
in a fatal crash.

Maneuvering at such high speeds

exerts huge pressures
on the body.

So what protects the bird?

A membrane covers their eyes
during the stoop,

just like a pair
of built-in goggles.

Nasal cones are thought
to slow airflow,

helping the peregrine
to breathe.

And with strong bones
and a stiff tail,

they can withstand forces
up to 18G

in a high-speed turn...

Twice that of fighter pilots.

This means a stooping peregrine
can pull out of a dive

and still maintain high speeds.

This is key
to catching their prey.

Flying at the very limits
of their ability

requires extraordinary control,
skill, and experience,

and it's a lot to learn
for any young bird.

Lloyd has brought
six-month-old Rudi

to a hilltop in Somerset
to teach him this final lesson.



Strong winds generate updrafts,

which should encourage him
to gain height and speed.

Will Rudi master the stoop?

Hey, hey.

He makes a few false starts...

but instinct kicks in.


Rudi performs
his first-ever stoop.

For all peregrines,
wild or human-raised,

the formula
for high-speed diving

is written in their genes.

It's perfect conditions today.

Really good updraft up through
this gully here behind us

and up onto the hill.

He's absolutely,
really loving it.

And he's fit and strong now,

he's looking nice and strong
and fit on the wing,

he can sustain that speed,

he can tolerate
all that pressure on his muscles

and just keep it going.

Rudi has mastered the
major skills a peregrine needs

to be a high-speed hunter.

In Chicago, the fledglings have
also now learned everything

needed for an independent life.

And city living will give them
the best chance possible

since urban peregrines have
a higher chance

of making it
through their first year

than their country cousins.

But it's now up to them to go
it alone when the time comes.

And when they do,

they'll rely
on those special skills

that set peregrines apart.

Oh, come on, come on.

Peregrines are able to spot
distant prey.

Any of the species
that he preys upon,

his vision is so much better.

They can calculate
and time a perfect catch.

Literally in no time at all

those talons
suddenly going bang!

And drop out of the sky

to reach world-record speeds.

Peregrine falcons may be

one of the most specialized
bird of prey,

'cause they're the fastest
of all of them.

They are absolutely spectacular.

The peregrine falcon is one of
the most successful predators

and, without a doubt,

the world's fastest animal.

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