Falcons are some of the most thrilling and exciting species that birdwatchers can hope to see. There is always something special about predatory animals that captures our attention, our gaze is often drawn up toward the top of the food chain. These creatures have reached the pinnacle of evolution, not living in fear of becoming somebody else’s lunch.
They are supremely adapted to preside over their chosen environments, generally keeping a discreet low profile. Still, when they spring into action, they strike panic and worry into nearly every other bird around. In this article, we’ll discover what makes falcons so unique and delve deeper into the lives of some of the most charismatic species. You’ll soon be eager to see falcons for yourself, and we’ll explore the best way to encounter them and observe their skills and behavior.
Falcons are birds of prey, also known as raptors, found worldwide in many different habitats, from deserts in Australia to mountains in the Arctic. There are 65 species in the family group Falconidae, of which 39 are in the genus Falco, the ‘true’ Falcons. These can then be broadly split into three groups, the Falcons, the Hobbies, and the Kestrels:
Stocky, powerful medium-large Falcons. Usually with a distinctive dark mustache stripe, dark hood, dark grey upperparts, and white or orange-white underside with dark markings. Some are all grey or brown. Typically hunt birds in flight
- Red-necked Falcon (Falco chicquera)- Africa, South Asia
- Red-footed Falcon (Falco vespertinus )- Breeds in Eastern Europe and Russia, winters in Africa
- Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis )- Breeds in Eastern Asia, winters in Africa
- Eleonora’s Falcon (Falco eleonorae )- Breeds around the Mediterranean, winters in Madagascar and East Africa
- Sooty Falcon (Falco conclour )- Breeds Northeast Africa and the Middle East, winters in Madagascar and East Africa
- Merlin (Facoc columbarius )- North America, Europe, Asia
- New Zealand Falcon (Falco novaseelandiae)- New Zealand
- Brown Falcon (Falco berigora )- Australia
- Grey Falcon (Falco hypoleucos)- Australia
- Black Falcon (Falco subniger)- Australia
- Aplomado Falcon (Falco femoralis )- Extreme south North America, Central, and South America
- Bat Falcon (Falco rufigularis)- Central and South America
- Orange-breasted Falcon (Falco deiroleucus)- Central and South America
- Lanner Falcon (Falco biarmicus)- Mediterranean, Middle East, Africa
- Laggar Falcon (Falco jugger)- Southwest Asia
- Saker Falcon (Falco cherrug)- Eastern Europe, Asia, North Africa
- Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus)- Circumpolar Arctic
- Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)- Worldwide, except Antarctica
- Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus)- Western North America
- Taita Falcon (Falco fasciinucha)- East Africa
Slim and narrow-winged falcons. All with blackish mustaches and caps, grey upperparts, and white or rufous underparts with dark markings. Very agile in pursuit flight, typically hunting small birds and large flying insects.
- Eurasian Hobby (Falco subbuteo)- Breeds in Europe and Asia, winters in Africa
- African Hobby (Falco cuiverii)- Africa
- Oriental Hobby (Falco severus)- Southeast Asia
- Australasian Hobby (Falco longipennis)- Australia
Relatively small and stocky falcons, mostly with rufous coloration, sexually dimorphic, males often have grey on the head and tail. Typically hunt terrestrial insects and small mammals, hovering over prey before dropping to the ground to catch it.
- Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni)- Breeds in the Mediterranean and Central Asia, winters in Africa
- Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)- Europe, Asia, North Africa
- Rock Kestrel (Falco rupicolus)- Southern Africa
- Malagasy Kestrel (Falco newtoni)- Madagascar
- Mauritius Kestrel (Falco punctatus)- Mauritius
- Seychelles Kestrel (Falco araeus)- Seychelles
- Reunion Kestrel (Falco duboisi)- Formerly Reunion Island, now extinct
- Spotted Kestrel (Falco moulccensis)- Southeast Asia
- Nankeen Kestrel (Falco cenchroides)- Australia
- Greater Kestrel (Falco rupicoloides)- Southern and East Africa
- American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)- North, Central, and South America, Caribbean
- Fox Kestrel (Falco alopex)- Sub-saharan Africa
- Gray Kestrel (Falco ardosiaceus)- Africa
- Dickinson’s Kestrel (Falco dickinsoni)- Africa
- Banded Kestrel (Falco zoniventrus)- Madagascar
Falcons are a group of birds of prey with long, narrow wings that allow them to fly extremely fast and with great agility. They have superb eyesight and can spot potential prey from far away and chase after it to catch it. Falcons are similar to hawks in many ways, but the distinguishing feature is that hawks kill their prey with their claws, and falcons use their beak, which has a vestigial tooth, for this purpose.
The Fastest Falcon: Peregrine Falcon
The Peregrine Falcon is not just the fastest falcon, they are also considered the fastest living creature on planet Earth. As they dive onto their prey from great heights, they can reach speeds of up to 200 miles per hour! But it’s not only their speed that makes Peregrine Falcons special.
They are one of the most supremely adapted predators, so finely tuned that they can inhabit almost any environment. I’ve seen them living on skyscrapers in New York, hunting migrant songbirds on cruise ships in The Caribbean, and flying through snowstorms in the Himalayas.
Peregrines hunt aerially; this means that they catch other birds in flight. Typically a Peregrine will lazily circle high in the sky, using rising warm air thermals to help it stay up without too much energy flapping its wings, or sit on a perch with a great view of the sky above. When spotting a potential target flying nearby, they will fly to a position high above the other bird and make a few fast wingbeats to accelerate, then tuck in their wings and dive vertically toward the target in a ‘stoop.’
The Peregrine plummets at 200 mph, with its nostrils sealed to stop air from whooshing into its head at high pressures and a thick membrane closing over its eyes to prevent damage from aerial debris. They slam their prey with clenched fists, breaking its wing or knocking it unconscious. As the stunned or lifeless target tumbles down through the sky, the Peregrine will fly around, catch it before it hits the ground, and carry it off to a favorite plucking post or back to its nest.
Many Peregrines are sedentary, they stay in a territory for the entire year and maybe even for all of their life, but some are also seriously long-distance migrants. For Peregrines nesting in Arctic Canada and Alaska, the summer months are a time of plenty, with a great abundance of shorebird and wildfowl prey to hunt. These birds, though, all depart the Arctic in the fall, heading south to areas where they will find unfrozen freshwater to live.
This leaves the Peregrines with no food, so they must follow their prey. This journey brings them into the territories of resident Peregrines, who will not tolerate sharing their patch, forcing the Arctic birds to continue their journey. Eventually, they reach Central or South America, where it is now Spring, and they have a temporary home until it is time to return to the Arctic.
Some Peregrines will migrate south as far as Argentina or Chile, over 14,000 kilometers away from their summer nest site. A Peregrine making this epic migration there and back each year, and living to 20 years old, will travel more than half a million kilometers in its lifetime, the equivalent distance of flying to the moon and halfway back!
Peregrines are widespread and relatively common these days. Birdwatchers can enjoy seeing them regularly, even in towns and cities. But this has not always been the case, it may seem complicated to believe given the frequency with which we see them now, but Peregrines were threatened with extinction in many countries as recently as the 1980s.
In the mid-20th century, a chemical called DDT was used by farmers to keep insect pests off their crops. This unwittingly caused a massive crash in the global Peregrine population. Nobody knew then, but the chemical was building up in the songbirds that eat those insects. The Peregrines were then catching and eating those songbirds and ingested large amounts of DDT. The chemical caused a reduction in the amount of calcium in the shells of the eggs laid by female Peregrines, leading to repeated nesting failures and Peregrines started to disappear from many areas.
Eventually, scientists and conservationists realized what was happening, and DDT and other similar chemicals were banned. The Peregrine population was very slow to recover, so in some places, they were bred in captivity before being released to the wild. The conservation measures were very successful, and Peregrines have staged a remarkable comeback.
How to See One
It is now possible to see Peregrines across North America, often in surprising habitats. Once restricted to wild and isolated shorelines and mountains, their population recovery has allowed them to spread successfully. Adult Peregrines need a cliff or cliff-like structure during the summer to nest on. Often this is on coastlines or ravines and gorges in mountainous regions. Still, they have recently adapted to using man-made structures like telecommunications towers and tall buildings like apartment blocks and skyscrapers.
Towns and cities make for unexpectedly suitable Peregrine habitats, with high buildings mimicking their natural nesting sites. The abundance of feral pigeons throughout the year makes the urban environment a rich foraging ground. Most people walking down a city boulevard would be utterly oblivious to the presence of an overhead peregrine. Still, an experienced birdwatcher would recognize the distinctive silhouette in the skies above.
Nesting Peregrines are often rather noisy, calling loudly from a favored perch on a high-rise building or a cathedral. In winter, Peregrines are less restricted to areas with suitable nesting ledges and can be found anywhere with plentiful avian prey. Coasts and wetlands where large numbers of wildfowl and shorebirds gather are often productive sites for Peregrine seekers.
The Most Powerful Falcon: Gyrfalcon
The Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) is the largest falcon, also known simply as Gyr. This giant falcon weighs between 1 and 2.5 kilograms, with a wingspan of up to 1.6 meters. This large size helps the Gyrs to survive and thrive in extreme conditions. Generally, animals get larger towards the polar regions, giving them a lower surface area to body volume ratio, reducing heat loss in cold conditions, and the ability to store more fat reserves in periods of poor foraging, a theory known as Bergmann’s Rule.
Habitat and Hunting
Gyrs live in the high North, breeding only in The Arctic, on cliffs and tundra in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and Siberia. Here they mostly hunt Willow (Lagopus lagopus) and Rock (Lagopus mutus) Ptarmigan, species of grouse resident in circumpolar regions throughout the year. The Gyrs fly low over the tundra or survey from cliffs, hoping to spot a feeding or resting Ptarmigan, surprise it, and snatch it on the ground.
If the target Ptarmigan takes flight, the Gyr will take the aerial pursuit to catch the prey in flight or drive it exhausted to the ground. In the summer, migrant shorebirds and waterfowl arrival provide additional hunting resources. They will even go after some mammals like Arctic Hares, Lemmings, and young Arctic Fox.
In the fall, the amount of potential prey decreases, so some Gyrs will migrate south, to southern Canada and the northern United States of America, usually to coastlines and open plains and agricultural lands in the interior. Some of the high Arctic nesting Gyrs will even spend the winter at sea in the North Atlantic Ocean, hunting seabirds and resting on icebergs, a unique strategy among birds of prey.
Gyrfalcons show significant plumage coloration variation across their range, from very dark brown to mostly clean white. Birds in northern Greenland and the Canadian Arctic islands are white, with some fine black spotting on the upper parts. In northeast Canada, most are dark brown or grey. In north-central Canada and Alaska, most are grey. All color variants are represented by vagrants that appear further south.
How to See One
It is a lucky birdwatcher who gets to see a Gyrfalcon. Few of us get to appreciate the incredible power of this predator in action. I’ve been fortunate enough to see just a handful of them in all my years of birdwatching, including one vagrant individual that had come further south than usual to my local coastline one winter, where it hunted the seabirds that were lingering in the coastal waters.
This is your best chance to see a Gyrfalcon. Every year, a few stray towards easily accessible locations. Otherwise, the only option is to travel to their icy domain in the Arctic. Most of my sightings have been in Greenland, Iceland, and northeast Canada, again on coastlines, where they are most numerous.
The Smallest Falcon: American Kestrel
The smallest falcon in North America is the American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), also considered by many to be the smallest falcon in the world. American Kestrels weigh between 80 and 150 grams, similar to a Common Grackle, and just one-tenth of the weight of a Gyrfalcon. The falconets of Asia are smaller but lie in a different genus Microhierax. The smallest of these is the Black-thighed Falconet, which weighs just 30 grams, around the same as an Eastern Bluebird.
American kestrels are boldly and distinctively colored. Males have a rich rufous back and upper tail that contrasts with blue-grey upper wings and the top of the head (which often has a small rufous cap visible). The upper parts and underside are both liberally scattered with black spots. The female is similar, though lacks the blue-gray on the wings, and is slightly duller brown-rufous.
American Kestrels are a common sight across rural North America, in open countries with short vegetation. They hunt by looking for insects, small mammals, and reptiles. To search for their prey, they usually sit on a perch like a tree branch or a post. If no suitable perches are available, they perform their remarkable hovering technique.
The Magic Falcon: Merlin
When I first heard of the Merlin, as a child, I assumed that they were named after the Arthurian Wizard Merlin, and wondered if they had some sort of magic abilities. Watching my first Merlin did nothing to dispel this. I observed it hunting over a salt marsh, disappearing seemingly at will over open ground and suddenly appearing some distance away to ambush a surprise flock of finches.
I later found out that there is no connection between the bird and the wizard, but Merlins will always be ‘the magic Falcon’ to me, and I’m sure you will understand why if you have seen them hunting.
This dashing little falcon is often rather discreet, sitting on low perches or even on the ground, watching and waiting for a small songbird like a lark, pipit, or finch. The Merlin will fly low, skimming the ground and hiding behind ridges to hide their approach and surprise the prey they hope to catch after a short pursuit. Merlins have also worked out a neat technique of following larger birds of prey, like hawks or harriers, and waiting for them to flush up small birds to chase, an ingenious (though slightly cheeky) method.
Merlins have more diverse plumages than most other falcons in different subspecies and through sexual dimorphism. Male Merlins are a beautiful slate blue-grey on the upper parts and cap, with a white face and underside streaked brown or buff. Females are brown on the upper parts with similar brown-buff streaking on a pale underside. Both males and females have bold and distinctive barring on the tail. Birds in the Pacific Northwest are very dark, and those in the Prairies are pale.
Merlins spend the summer months in Canada, and the north-central and northwest United States of America, breeding in an open and lightly wooded country that suits their hunting technique. They may nest near the edge of woodland but a rarely seen in forested areas or around tall, sheer cliffs.
Some Merlins have started to take advantage of urban areas, nesting in old crow nests in towns and cities and hunting House Sparrows and other songbirds abundant in urban habitats. In winter, they disperse southwards, again preferring open country, and many will go to coastlines, where they hunt flocks of shorebirds for small sandpipers and plovers.
Falcons are among many birdwatchers’ favorite bird families, and a day with a falcon sighting is always a good day out in the field. These are expert and powerful hunters, despite the diminutive appearance of some species. It can be challenging to identify a falcon at the species level. Still, knowledge of their various hunting techniques and experience of their shape, size, and plumage differences will allow you to understand more about what you are watching and make any falcon sighting the highlight of your day.
Answer: This has puzzled many birdwatchers over the years, and there doesn’t appear to be a right or wrong answer. Amongst people I know, I’ve heard it pronounced Jerfalcon, Gerfalcon, Gyrefalcon, or Girfalcon. Pronounce it how you like, and nobody can tell you that you’re wrong, with any authority.
Answer: As such an efficient predator, the appearance of a falcon in your neighborhood could understandably be cause for alarm if you delight in feeding songbirds. But Falcons rarely come hunting low in enclosed or densely vegetated areas.
Hobbies will mostly catch insects and high-flying birds like Swifts and Swallows. Kestrels pounce on insects and small mammals. If you have a problem with rodents, the presence of a Kestrel could well be a cause for celebration. Peregrine Falcons usually take medium-sized prey high in the sky, pigeons being a preferred target.
Other Falcons, like Gyrfalcons and Merlins, tend to stay in wild and open landscapes and are unlikely to come hunting around human habitation. A bird of prey loitering near your feeders is much more likely to be a hawk. Their ambush-hunting style is more likely to be successful in this situation. And this should also not be viewed negatively. Birds of prey have always hunted songbirds, and predation will always be part of the natural cycles and a sign of a healthy ecosystem.
Answer: The rarest species of Falcon in the world is the Mauritius Kestrel, found only on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. There are currently around 400 individuals living in the wild, but in the 1970s, there were only four wild birds. A severe conservation effort and a captive breeding program have allowed the population to recover, but the species is still considered endangered.
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