Just this week I had a wonderful sighting of a Peregrine Falcon perched up in the mountains near my home. The grace and power of this bird inspired me to learn more about this group of avians, and in this article, I’m going to introduce you to these awesome hunters. So let’s take a closer look at the 5 different types of falcons found in the US and how they live and hunt.
Read on to learn more about:
- What is a falcon?
- 5 types of falcons found in the United States
- How do falcons hunt?
- What is falconry?
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5 Types Of Falcons In The United States
What Is A Falcon?
Falcons are small to medium-sized birds of prey from the Falconidae family, and all the North American falcons are all of the genus Falco. Falcons are some of the fastest, most agile birds on the planet, and they use this speed to catch their most important prey, other birds.
One species, the Peregrine falcon, holds the title of the undisputed champion of the skies. These types of falcons have been measured at incredible speeds of over 200 miles per hour.
1. American Kestrel
The American Kestrel is the smallest falcon species in the United States. They are beautiful small falcons that are marked in shades of brick-red and gray. They have bold black markings on their faces and dark yellow to orange legs and ceres.
This falcon breeds in natural or man-made cavities and might even use a nest box if you put it out in the right place. Nesting takes place in the early summer and the female lays one clutch of 4-5 eggs each year.
These types of falcons feed on insects like crickets and grasshoppers but will also take reptiles, mice, and small birds. They hunt over open areas by hovering before dropping down onto their prey. They can be found all over the United States and visit Canada and Alaska in the summer months to breed.
The Merlin is another small falcon. Birds are on the top of the menu for these American falcons, and they catch them by chasing them down and out-maneuvering them in level flight. These speedy birds are also known to hunt bats in the air.
Merlins aren’t known for their nest-building skills and nest on the ground or, more often, in abandoned nests of other birds like hawks and crows. Breeding and nesting take place in Alaska, Canada, and the extreme north of the US. These birds nest in the early summer and the female lays one clutch of 4-5 eggs each year.
Some birds are resident in the American northwest but most birds migrate southwards and can be seen throughout most of the continental US and down into South America. These birds have a wide distribution and can be seen in North America, Asia, and Europe, South America, and even North Africa. They have adapted well to life around people and can often be seen around towns and even cities.
Merlins are popular falconry birds and males and females are quite differently marked. Although both sexes have yellow legs and ceres, female Merlins have browner backs whereas males have grey backs.
Gyrfalcons are large, powerful American falcons that breed on cliffs or in large abandoned nests of other birds. They nest once a year and lay 2-7 eggs in a clutch. As the largest falcon species on the globe, these birds tend to take pretty large prey like ptarmigan, waterfowl, and other birds that they can catch either in the air or on the ground.
This type of falcon is a bird of the far north, in Alaska and Canada. In the USA, you might be lucky enough to spot one of these awesome hunters during the winter only. They can be seen in the far northwestern states like Washington, Montana, and North Dakota, although they are not common this far south.
Gyrfalcons prefer to hunt over open, barren areas with low scrub and grass. They are fearsome hunters that can strike their prey in the air before killing it down below, or by swooping down onto unsuspecting prey on the ground.
These birds can be seen in a variety of color morphs from dark to almost pure white. Gyrfalcons are thought to mate for life, and like other falcons, these birds are lazy nest builders. They prefer to use the old nests of other large birds instead of building their own. Sometimes they just nest on ledges and cliffs.
4. Prairie Falcon
These fast-flying American falcons hunt their prey by flying low over the ground at speed. They catch ground birds like meadowlarks and rodents like ground squirrels in this way. Both males and females of this medium-sized falcon look alike.
When the hunting is good, these forward-thinking birds are known to hide food away for leaner times. As skilled at hunting as they may be, these falcons sometimes find themselves being hunted by other larger birds of prey and owls.
This is a classic falcon of the American west. These birds are at home in dry scrubland and grassy country and may be found in the high country even over 10 000ft.
These cliff-nesting falcons breed in the summer and fall and lay 3-6 eggs in the nesting site. They undergo short eastward migrations outside of the breeding season but are mostly resident.
5. Peregrine Falcon
Peregrine falcons can be found throughout North America and much of the world. These are the fastest moving animals on the planet, capable of flying at over 60 miles per hour in level flight, and 200 miles per hour while stooping down to catch their prey.
This type of falcon is usually found in areas with cliffs that provide nesting sites. Big cities with tall buildings create a similar environment, and fortunately, these incredible birds are able to share these artificial habitats with humans.
Like other kinds of falcons, these birds don’t take much pride in their nest building. They usually choose a nesting site on a ledge and simply scrape a depression in the dirt. In this scrape, the female lays her 2-5 eggs in the spring or summer.
Peregrine falcons are specialist bird hunters and will take just about any kind of bird, usually up to the size of ducks and ptarmigans, although they do sometimes tackle prey much larger than themselves.
How Do Falcons Hunt?
The different types of falcon species use a combination of stealth and speed to catch their prey. Prey animals down on the ground can be dropped down onto from directly above, like kestrels do, or swooped down on at speed like a Prairie falcon catching a ground squirrel.
When it comes to bird hunting, falcons can either grab their dinner in their claws right out of the sky or slam their talons into it, leaving it to crash to the ground. The prey is then killed by biting the neck with their razor-sharp bills.
What Is Falconry?
Falconry is an ancient hunting technique and sport of nobility. Trained birds of prey are used to capture prey animals like game birds, rabbits, and squirrels for their human handler.
Falcons, hawks, and eagles are all used for this activity. Falconry is more popular as a hobby or sport than as a survival technique in modern times.
Many different types of falcons are used in falconry. Years of training are required to develop the skills and knowledge needed to grow the working relationship between the bird and its handler. The bird usually wears a bell on one of its legs, and a hood over its head when resting.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can a falcon kill a human?
This is highly unlikely. They do have razor-sharp talons and bills but they are small birds and none of the types of falcons are likely to engage in a fight with a much larger human. You are free to enjoy watching these animals without any fear, but never provoke a nesting bird and always be cautious when dealing with trapped, injured, or cornered birds of prey.
Is a hawk a falcon?
No. Although many people use the term hawk to describe any bird of prey that is not an eagle, falcons are technically quite different animals to hawks. There are many more different types of hawks in the United States than there are falcons. Falcons are often smaller birds, with longer, more sharply pointed wings, and less well-developed legs.
Are falcons loud?
Falcons are generally quiet birds that don’t call too often although they can be quite noisy at times and can make a variety of different sounds.
Where do falcons live?
Falcons live throughout the United States and can be seen all through the year in many areas. They mostly live in open areas with cliffs nearby but can be seen in many different habitats as well.
Who is faster, a falcon or an eagle?
Although eagles are capable of really fast flight while swooping in to catch their prey, falcons are certainly the faster birds, both in direct, level flight and while swooping. The fastest bird in the world is a falcon.
I hope you have enjoyed learning about the different types of falcons as much as I did while researching these deadly hunters, and who knows, you might even be lucky enough to see one on your next birding field trip. Spare a thought for the small birds and animals out there that are so vulnerable to these supreme hunters. Happy birdwatching!