What is a Falcon?

What is a falcon, really?  There was a time we thought we knew.  Based on their physical attributes and lifestyle, falcons enjoyed a very long run as a founding member of the order Falconiformes, along with the rest of the diurnal raptor-y type birds like vultures and eagles and hawks and hawk-eagles.  But the secrets that lie within their genes eventually became public, and it turns out that these arguably most impressive of the raptors (though even that term is less and less useful) are not, in any way, related to the rest of the apex predatory birds, and in fact lie much closer to the perching birds and not far at all from the parrots.  Birders in the 21st Century are no stranger to genetic re-evaluations of species relationships, but this one may well be considered the blot heard round the world.

Here’s the funny thing though.  Once separated from the hawks and eagles, we begin to see falcons as they really are.  Yeah, the diurnal hunting thing was a huge reason they were put together in the first place, but falcons have a range of adaptations to their unique and remarkable lifestyle that are not shared by any of the other diurnal raptors. For starters, they have the little notch in their bill that delivers the killing blow to spinal cords.  They have small bony protuberances in their nostrils that baffles air flow and allows them to breathe while flying at high speeds.  And there are those remarkable pointed wings, and their reputation for intelligence not shared with the rest of their former family.  These are special birds.


Gyrfalcon, photo by Clare Kines

They’re found on six of the seven continents – in fact one species, the cosmopolitan Peregrine Falcon, holds that distinction all on its own.  The range in size from southeast Asia’s tiny Black-thighed Falconet, a mere 6 inches of falcon fury, to the massive holarctic Gyrfalcon, the females of which can be nearly a meter long.  The group can be roughly broken down into four groups, the smallest of which are those aforementioned falconets, 5 tiny Asian species in the genus Micohierax which are voracious predators of flying insects.  The classic falcon genus, Falco, consists of 37 species of winged death, and contains most of the species we think of when we talk about the family including those dainty kestrels (which have been given the I and the Bird treatment before).


Merlin, photo by Daryl Cavallaro

Kestrels are undoubtedly classic falcons, but their means of foraging by hovering over grassy fields differentiates them.  The distinction is more than just behavioral, as the 14 species deemed to be kestrel are more closely related to each-other than to the rest of the genus.  Falcons called kestrels do tend to be smaller and more slender, and often nest in cavities rather than the cliff faces preferred by their co-geners. With the exception of our American Kestrel, the group is limited to the Old World (as is the bulk of falcon diversity generally, to be fair), and even within the kestrels there are distinct clades.  Most are among the malar-striped “classic” kestrels, and there is none more classic than the widespread Common Kestrel, but the African species are distinct.

American Kestrel, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Larger members of the genus Falco more closely resemble the public’s perception of falcons.  These species are merciless predators of birds, often captured on the wing in fantastic stoops from a great height.  The widespread Peregrine Falcon is undoubtedly the prototype, and is widely acknowledged as the “fastest animal on earth” with stoops on prey recorded in excess of 200 miles per hour.  And the fact that this one species can be found from southeast Asia to western Oregon to Atlantic City to the Australian bush, even finding our city high-rises an acceptable nesting substitute to the rocky cliffs of their historic past.  But to focus on the Peregrine gives the short shrift to incredible species like the Prairie Falcon of western north America, the highly-migratory Amur Falcon whose travels span both Asia and Africa, the pugilistic little Merlin, familiar to every birder in the northern hemisphere, Australia’s natty Brown Falcon, and Mesoamerica’s unique Bat Falcon whose preferred prey is precisely what you might think.

Amur Falcon, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

The new and improved Falconiformes also contains such unusual species as Laughing Falcon, unusual among falcons as a snake specialist, and the neotropic forest-falcons, which really look and act more like Accipiterine hawks than the open-country speed merchants that have impressed themselves on our own culture for centuries.

Laughing Falcon, photo by Renato Espinosa

Yes, few families of birds (except, perhaps, for their sister taxa, the parrots) have endeared themselves to us such that we’ve kept them in our own homes.  The practice of hunting with birds has persisted since the 8th Century, when ancient Assyrians are illustrated on bas reliefs with falcons on their hands.  In modern times, the practice has come under scrutiny, though it’s still practiced more or less identically to how it was hundreds of years ago.

And regardless of how you feel about the continued use of falcons for sport, it’s impossible to deny their power and grace, and to fail to be sympathetic to those who want to be close to them, be that in jesses on your arm through binoculars as it screams across a mudflat in pursuit of shorebirds.  Wherever they are, they’re magnetic.

Merlin, photo by Walter Kitundu

Merlin, photo by Walter Kitundu



Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus

Peregrine Falcon, photo by Corey Finger Peregrine Falcon, photo by Corey Finger

Prairie Falcon, Falco mexicanus

Brown Falcon, Falco berigora

Amur Falcon, Falco amurensis

Merlin, Falco columbarinus

Gyrfalcon, Falco rusticolis

Red-footed Falcon, Falco vespertinus

Bat Falcon, Falco rufigularis

Aplomado Falcon, Falco femoralis

American Kestrel, Falco sparverius

Common Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus

Lesser Kestrel, Falco naumanni

Gray Kestrel, photo by Chris Townend Gray Kestrel, photo by Chris Townend
Gray Kestrel, Falco ardosiaceus

Laughing Falcon, Herpetotheres cachinnans

Gyrfalcon, photo by Don Delaney Gyrfalcon, photo by Don Delaney

General Falconry