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Falcons

Interaction Of Falcons With Humans, Current Status Of North American Falcons

Falcons are birds of prey in the family Falconidae. There are 39 species of true falcons, all in the genus Falco. Like other species in the order Falconiformes (which also includes hawks, eagles, osprey, and vultures), falcons have strong raptorial (or grasping) talons, a hooked beak, extremely acute vision, and a fierce demeanor. Falcons can be distinguished from other raptors by the small toothlike serrations (called tomial teeth) on their mandibles and by their specific coloration. They also have distinctive behavior patterns, such as killing their prey by a neck-breaking bite, head-bobbing, defecating below the perch or nest, and an often swift and direct flight pattern.

Falcons can be found on all continents except Antarctica. Some species have a very widespread distribution. In particular, the peregrine falcon (F. peregrinus) is virtually cosmopolitan, having a number of subspecies, some of them specific to particular oceanic islands. Other falcons are much more restricted in their distribution: for example, the Mauritius kestrel (F. puctatus) only breeds on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. At one time, fewer than ten individuals of this endangered species remained, although populations have since increased as a result of strict protection and a program of captive breeding and release.

Species of falcons exploit a very wide variety of habitat types, ranging from the high arctic tundra to boreal and temperate forest, prairie and savanna, and tropical forests of all types. Falcons catch their own food. Most species of falcons catch their prey in flight, although kestrels generally seize their food on the ground, often after hovering above. As a group, falcons eat a great range of foods; however, particular species are relatively specific in their feeding, limiting themselves to prey within certain size ranges. The American kestrel (F. sparverius), for example, eats mostly insects, earthworms, small mammals, and small birds, depending on their seasonal availability. A peregrine falcon taking flight. Photograph by Alan & Sandy Carey. The National Audubon Society Collection/Photo Researchers. Reproduced by permission.
Heavier, more powerful falcons, such as the peregrine, will eat larger species of birds, including ducks, seabirds, grouse, pigeons, and shorebirds.


The nests of many falcons are rather crudely made, often a mere scrape on a cliff ledge or on the ground. Some species, however, nest in natural cavities or old woodpecker holes in trees, as is the case with the American kestrel. Most kestrels will also use nest boxes provided by humans. Peregrines, which sometimes breed in cities, will nest on ledges on tall buildings, a type of artificial cliff.

The courtship displays of falcons can be impressive, in some cases involving spectacular aerial displays and acrobatics. Those of the peregrine are most famous. To impress a female (properly called a falcon), the male bird (called a tiercel) will swoop down from great heights at speeds as high as 217 MPH (350 km/h) and will execute rolls and other maneuvers, including midair exchanges of food with its intended mate. Although this species undertakes long-distance seasonal migrations, the birds return to the same nesting locale and, if possible, will mate with the same partner each year. Incubation of falcon eggs does not begin until the entire clutch is laid, so all young birds in a nest are about the same size. This is different from many other birds of prey, which incubate as soon as the first egg is laid, resulting in a great size range of young birds in the nest. In falcons, the female (which is always larger than the male) does most of the incubating, while the tiercel forages widely for food.

The most northerly species is the gyrfalcon (F. rusticolus), a large white species that breeds throughout the Arctic of North America and Eurasia. This bird usually has its nest, or aerie, high on a cliff. The nest site is typically reused for many years, and can often be discerned from miles away by the colorful orange and white An American kestrel (Falco sparverius) at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, Arizona. Not much larger than a blue jay, the kestrel is the smallest of the North American falcons. Potograph by Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission.
streakings of guano and rock lichens growing in a fertilized zone extending several meters beneath the nest. Depending on the nearby habitat, gyrfalcons may feed on ptarmigan, seabirds, or small migratory birds such as buntings and shorebirds.

Other familiar falcons of North America include the prairie falcon (F. mexicanus), which ranges widely in open habitats of the southwestern region, and the merlin or pigeon hawk (F. columbarius), which breeds in boreal and subarctic habitats and winters in the southern part of the continent and Central America.


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