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Peregrine falcons maneuver best when dive-bombing at more than 300 kilometers per hour

The world’s fastest hunter—the peregrine falcon—snatches prey out of the sky at speeds of more than 300 kilometers per hour. This breakneck maneuver, called a stoop, gives the bird-eating raptors an element of surprise and allows them to outmaneuver their prey. But it wouldn’t be possible at slower attack speeds, according to a new study.

Falcon attack dives happen so fast that it’s nearly impossible to study certain aspects in real time. So researchers turned to 3D simulations that depicted computer-generated peregrine falcons trying to catch computer-generated common starlings. The team found that when the starling flew in a straight path, the predator was best off diving at roughly 150 kilometers per hour. But if the starling was trying to evade capture, flying in different directions, then the falcon stood the greatest chance of success by stooping at much higher speeds—about 360 kilometers per hour—the team reports today in PLOS Computational Biology.

You’d think that the higher attack speeds would make it more difficult for falcons to adjust to a moving target. But the opposite turned out to be true: The predators were more maneuverable at higher speeds because they could generate more turning force; only then were they able to outmaneuver the highly agile starlings. So stoops don’t just help falcons quickly overtake prey—they also help the predators change directions.