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The collared forest falcon is one of the most dramatic-looking raptors that I have ever had the privilege to see in the wild. They are an extremely elusive species for birders because they hang out primarily in dense forest habitats. Despite their large size, they are also very agile and stealthy hunters. Hence the “ninja” reference is in the title of this article.
The first time I saw one, it was a juvenile, and I almost missed it! I was walking out on our back deck to grab some basil from a pot. Out of the corner of my eye, I clocked a brownish bird with long legs and a long tail. Since our backyard is very commonly occupied by chachalacas (Ortalis cinereiceps), for a split second, I thought: “Meh, a chachalaca.” Then I turned my head. Wow!
The collard forest falcon is an amazing bird. Not only because of its beautiful appearance, but also the interesting behaviors that make it stand out from other falcons. So let’s dive in.
Taxonomy: Micrastur semitorquatus (Falconidae family)
Size: 20-24 in (51-61 cm)
Coloration: Black and white (adult), Brown, White, and Tawny (juvenile)
Range: Mexico to Uruguay
Habitat: Dense forest and forest edges.
Diet: Small mammals and birds, occasional reptiles.
Evolution and Taxonomy
Collard forest falcons are in the genus micrastur, which contains seven species of falcon, all located in the Americas. Although this genus was originally thought to be closely related to hawks, DNA studies have revealed that it is nested very neatly in falconiformes.
The split between forest falcons and typical falcons is thought to have occurred approximately 15 million years ago. Despite this relatively short amount of time (in evolutionary terms), there are many striking differences. Typical falcons all have tomial teeth, which are sharp protrusions on the top mandible. Typical falcons also have long, pointed wings and tend to capture prey in flight.
Collared forest falcons, on the other hand, are adapted to a different lifestyle. They sneak around the forest using short rounded wings, long flexible tails, and strong legs. It is a fascinating example of the way that the environment can play a huge role in the appearance and behavior of a bird.
How to Spot a Collared Forest Falcon
The collared forest falcon is a rare find for birders. Once you see one, however, it is reasonably easy to identify. The most striking features of the collared forest falcon are its extremely long legs and tail. The tail has multiple white stripes and flexible feathers- reminiscent of a squirrel cuckoo. The legs are longer than any other raptor that I have seen, and they are bright yellow. It is also the largest of all forest falcon species. Females can be up to 61cm (24 in) in length.
Adults of the species are particularly dramatic in appearance. The deep black of the upper parts teamed with bright white underparts, and yellow legs are almost unmistakable. They also have a distinctive face and neck markings. The head is black, which is then interrupted by a white stripe along the cheek and a black crescent shape going around the ear to the back of the neck.
In juveniles, the upper parts are tawny brown, and the chest is striped with dark brown, rust, and white. There is also a greenish tinge to the cere and facial skin. In flight, adults and juveniles have beautifully scalloped dark and white shapes under the wing. Unusually for falcons, this species has short rounded wings instead of the long pointed variety.
There is a dark morph of the collared forest falcon too, which is very rare. Adults of this morph are almost entirely black. As with the juveniles, the easiest way to identify them is from the long tail, long yellow legs, and greenish cere.
How to Hear a Collared Forest Falcon
Most of the birders that I know in Costa Rica have only managed to find a collared forest falcon through its call. One top tip I have heard is to take a tape of collared forest falcon vocalizations into the jungle with you and try to draw them out that way. In most bird books, the sound is described as a loud “OWH.” When you hear it, it has an almost human-like quality to it. Sort of like someone saying “AWWW” when they are disappointed by something.
Many people have also described it as being similar to the call of a laughing falcon. However, the laughing falcon has a much faster song with a “GWA” sound. When another laughing falcon joins in, it descends into a witch-like cackle of noises- hence the name.
Have a listen to these recordings of both vocalizations to familiarize yourself with the difference:
Apart from the laughing falcon, the collared forest falcon is most commonly confused for the barred forest falcon (Micrastur ruficollis) and the bicolored hawk (Accipiter bicolor). I’m not including the chachalaca on this list because, honestly, that was pretty embarrassing!
The barred forest falcon inhabits similar dense jungles and also has those bright yellow legs. However, the barred forest falcon also has bright yellow orbital skin (the skin around the eyes). As the name suggests, adults also feature a very finely striped chest. The upper parts are also more slate grey than the deep black of the collared forest falcon.
The bicolored hawk juvenile can appear very similar to the adult collared forest falcon. However, they have yellow instead of greenish cere. Adults also have distinctly rufous thighs. Lastly, both the barred forest falcon and bicolored hawk have vocalizations that sound more like a barking noise: “EHR” and “KEH-KEH-KEH,” respectively.
Where to Find a Collared Forest Falcon
The collared forest falcon is most commonly found in Mexico and Central America. Its range also extends to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Uruguay. According to some sources, it was also spotted in Southern Texas in 1994, although I was not personally able to confirm this.
The collared forest falcon somewhat unsurprisingly really likes to be in the forest. The dense tropical jungles of Central America are its wheelhouse. Occasionally, you can also spot one on the edges of a forest, usually on a very high perch. It is a lowland bird, reaching elevations of up to 1500 m (4,900 ft).
If you are looking for a collared forest falcon using its distinctive call, dawn and dusk are the best times to head out for a walk. This is when the species is most active.
There are two recognized subspecies of the collared forest falcon. M.s. naso is the Mexican and Central American variety, and M.s. semitorquatus that occurs in South America. Allegedly, the Central American race is a bit darker and larger than the South American- but to be honest, I can’t see much of a difference.
Hunting and Diet – The Velociraptor of Falcons?
Unlike most species of typical falcon, the collared forest falcon is a ground hunter. Although it has been observed to hunt using a swoop from a low branch, its long legs and flexible tail make it perfectly adapted for the forest floor.
It uses its long legs to stalk and run after mammals on the ground. Incorporating the occasional flap and jump with its short rounded wings. Its long flexible tails allow for improved maneuverability and balance amongst the dense trees and undergrowth.
When I describe the hunting method of the collared forest falcon, I am struck by one image- a dinosaur. I can see a feathered velociraptor darting and pouncing through the trees of the Cretaceous. Of course, these dinos couldn’t fly, but they did use their flexible tails and wings for balance, speed, and agility.
The collared forest falcon eats a lot of mammals. In a study from 2000, squirrels, bats, and rodents were found to form the majority of their diet. They also enjoy feasting on other birds, particularly toucans and wild turkeys. Somewhat ironically, the collared forest falcon is very fond of eating chachalacas- the bird I originally thought that it was when I first saw it. As with most raptors, the collared forest falcon won’t say no to the occasional lizard or frog- but mammals make up 46% of its diet.
Breeding and Nesting
Like many species of falcon, collared forest falcons do not carry any additional material to make their nests. Instead, they use the hollows of trees or caves for their nesting sites. Interestingly, this echoes the nesting behavior of parrots which are some of the falcons’ closest relatives.
If you are looking for a collared forest falcon nest, you should take a look for large openings in trees such as :
- Spanish cedar (Cedrela mexicana)
- Honduras mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla)
- Chicozapote (Manilkara zapota)
- Yellow Mombin (Spondias mombin)
- Black Cabbage-bark (Lonchocarpus castilloi).
January to May is a good time of year to catch the collared forest falcon engaging in nesting and breeding behavior. After courtship and mating, the female lays two eggs and incubates them for approximately 45 days. During this time, the male feeds mum to make sure she doesn’t starve to death. Following this, both parents are involved with the babies as they graduate to fledglings. In keeping with the hunting behavior of these forest falcons, the parents will feed their young either on the ground or on a low branch. After birth, babies will stay with their parents for approximately 3-4 months.
Frequently Asked Questions
Answer: On the IUCN red list, the collared forest falcon is listed as “Least Concern” as of 2019, with an estimated population of 500,000 to 5 million. However, since these birds are heavily dependent on old-growth forests for both hunting and nesting, habitat destruction is a concern. If you are looking for a conservation project to help out the collared forest falcon, you should help out organizations engaged with:
• Primary Rainforest Protection
• Anti-logging and Sustainable Wood
Answer: One of the reasons that the call of the collared forest falcon is so distinct is their habitat. In the dense tropical jungle, these birds use their voices to locate and communicate with mates and neighbors. Although the call of the collared forest falcon is usually quite slow, females sometimes have a more rapid vocalization. This is thought to be a signal to males in the area that they are ready for the breeding season.
In several studies, it has been suggested that the low frequency of the calls is adapted for vegetation. Higher frequencies of sound tend to be dampened by the forest, whereas low-frequency calls travel much further. This is similar to the way that whales communicate over large distances using very low-frequency sounds.
Answer: According to iNaturalist, and every birder website that I have visited, Costa Rica is the place to be for this bird. Both the Osa Peninsula and Carara National Park have high instances of sightings. As previously discussed, you should seek out lowland dense jungle, and head out in the early morning or at dusk.
Having a recording of a collared forest falcon call can be helpful to draw out a nearby bird. However, it is important not to play it over and over again. Keep it to a couple of minutes only, and then move to another location. If you don’t want to go this route, simply familiarizing yourself with the vocalizations can be an enormous help.
Lastly, make a habit of being very quiet in the jungle. Of course, this is a good habit for wildlife spotting in general. But, the collared forest falcon is not going to stick around if you are stomping or crunching or chatting away. Think of it like looking for a big cat- or a ninja!
- IUCN Red List
- Journal of Raptor Research
- Ornitologica Tropical
- Genome Biology and Evolution
- The Birds of Costa Rica
- An Illustrated Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica
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