Falcons and Caracaras: Falconidae

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The birds in the falcon family are small to medium raptors (birds of prey). They include peregrines (PER-uh-grunz) , falconets, gyrfalcons (JERR-fal-kunz), merlins, kestrels, hobbies, and caracaras. They range in size from 5.5 to 25.6 inches (14 to 65 centimeters) from their beaks to the end of their tails. Like other raptors, falcons have sharp talons (claws) and hooked beaks, excellent eyesight, and pointed wings. Most falcons have feathers in shades of brown, black, white, and gray with some streaks or spots.


Falcons and caracaras live on every continent except Antarctica. They also live on many ocean islands.


Birds in the falcon family live in almost every kind of land habitat. Many of the falcons that live in northern areas migrate to places where there is a better supply of food in winter.


Falcons are carnivores (meat-eaters), and all but the caracaras feed on live animals. Some hunt other birds in the air and others grab animals on the ground. Kestrels hover above the ground, and many other falcons swoop down from perches. Although some falcons occasionally hunt in pairs, most of them hunt alone. They eat mostly birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects, and caracaras also eat carrion, including dead fish.


Falcons are powerful predators, animals that hunt others for food, and they are most likely the fastest flying birds of prey. Most of them hunt during the day, but several species also hunt after dark.

Most species in this family breed once a year. Except for the caracaras, they do not build nests. They lay their eggs in holes in trees and rocky cliffs or in the old nests of other birds. Usually the female sits on the eggs and stays with the young while the male brings food to her and the chicks. Young falcons depend on their parents for help with catching food for a while after they can fly.


Falcons are admired for their flying and hunting skills, and they appear in legends and on flags and shields of many countries. In ancient Egypt, Horus was a god who looked like a falcon. About 4,000 years ago, people began to use falcons and hawks to capture meat for themselves. This is called falconry, and some people still practice it today.


Birds in the hawk family and in the falcon family have many things in common, including the sharp talons and hooked beaks that all raptors have. Both hawks and falcons catch prey with their feet. But hawks usually kill their prey by squeezing it with their feet, and falcons kill by biting the prey's neck or by landing hard on it. Falcons in general are smaller than hawks and their wings are pointier. Hawks build nests and falcons nest on the ground, on rocky ledges, or in nests built by other birds.


Many falcons have been harmed by habitat loss, poisons, and people who do not like birds of prey. No species in the falcon family are listed as Endangered, but four of them are considered Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction. Six other species are listed as Near Threatened, close to becoming threatened, and could be heading for serious trouble.


Physical characteristics: The crested caracara is a medium-sized raptor with a bare red face and a black cap of feathers on top of its head. It has a white neck and throat with some dark streaks. The rest of its body is covered with dark feathers, except for some white steaks under its tail and in the tail feathers. Crested caracaras range in length from 19 to 23 inches (49 to 59 centimeters) from their beaks to end of their tails, with the females being the larger than the males.

Geographic range: Crested caracaras live in most of South America, Central America, and Mexico. They are also found in the southern United States.

Habitat: Crested caracaras prefer open areas where they can see the animals they are hunting. They live in grasslands, deserts, farmlands, river edges, wetlands, and the grassy foothills of mountains. They like to have a few scattered trees available that can be used for roosting at night and for nesting.

Diet: Caracaras are unusual among falcons. They catch most of their prey by walking around fields and through shallow wetlands. But sometimes they watch for prey from fence posts and trees and look for dead animals along roads. They eat mostly grasshoppers and beetles, but they also eat other animals, eggs, fruit, and seeds.

Behavior and reproduction: They gather in groups at carcasses and in roosting trees at night. Pairs breed by themselves, and they build large stick nests in trees, on cactuses, or on the ground. The young stay with their parents for as long as three months after they can fly.

Crested caracaras and people: The crested caracara is the national bird of Mexico. Caracaras are clever, and they sometimes annoy campers by stealing their food.

Conservation status: Crested caracaras are not immediately threatened, but some sheep farmers kill them because they are afraid the birds will kill their lambs. ∎


Physical characteristics: The gyrfalcon (JERR-fal-kun) is the largest bird in the falcon family. Males weigh only about 65 percent as much as their mates. The birds' length varies from 18.9 to 25.2 inches (41 to 64 centimeters) from their beaks to the tip of their tails. Some gyrfalcons are almost pure white, others are gray with streaks, and still others are mostly dark brown.

Geographic range: Gyrfalcons breed around the Artic circle in Iceland, Greenland, North America, Europe, and Asia, and some spend the winters farther south. They live the farthest north of all the raptors that hunt during the day.

Habitat: Gyfalcons nest in the Arctic on the tundra (the cold, windy, dry region where trees cannot grow). They range from northern seacoasts to about 4,600 feet (1,400 meters) up mountainsides and along rivers. In winter, the birds that bred the farthest north fly south to warmer grasslands, farmlands, seacoasts, and river valleys where prey is plentiful.

Diet: Birds (especially ptarmigans [TAR-mih-gunz] and grouse) and mammals (ground squirrels and lemmings) make up most of the gyrfalcons' diet. They fly low and fast to surprise their prey, and they grab the prey with their feet. The gyrfalcons that live on seacoasts often kill nesting seabirds and waterfowl.

Behavior and reproduction: Gyrfalcon pairs breed by themselves. They lay their eggs on cliff ledges or in nests built by raves, eagles, and other birds. The number of eggs laid is usually three or four, but they may lay as many as seven. The female stays with the eggs and chicks while the male brings food. But by the time the chicks are ten days old, she has to help feed them. The young birds can fly at about seven weeks.

Gyrfalcons and people: Falconers (people who train birds to hunt) often use gyrfalcons. The birds are raised in captivity now, so falconers do not have to take them from the wild.

Conservation status: Gyrfalcons are not listed as threatened. ∎


Physical characteristics: A peregrine falcon's body is designed for speed, and it is the fastest, most skillful bird of prey on Earth. It also has remarkable eyesight and hearing. The birds are between 13.4 and 19.7 inches (34 and 50 centimeters) long from their beaks to the end of their tails. The female usually weighs about twice as much as her mate. Peregrines have dark feathers on their upper parts and lighter-colored feathers below, with streaks on their under parts.

Geographic range: Peregrine falcons most likely breed in more places in the world than any other bird. They are found on all continents except the Antarctic and on many ocean islands.

Habitat: Peregrines can live almost anywhere, from the hot tropical lands to the cold coasts of the North, and from sea level to 13,000-foot (4,000-meter) mountains. They live on islands and rocky cliffs, in deserts and forests, and on the treeless tundra. They also live among skyscrapers in large cities.

Diet: Peregrine falcons are famous for the way they catch birds in mid air. A peregrine flies high until it sees a bird flying below. Instantly, it folds its pointed wings and dives steeply down, hitting and killing the bird at more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) per hour. Then the peregrine either catches the dead bird, or it dives past the bird and picks it up on the ground. Peregrines occasionally hunt on the ground and eat mammals, reptiles, insects, and fish.

Behavior and reproduction: They usually build their nests on cliff ledges or in caves. They also nest on window ledges and bridges. Peregrines lay between two and four eggs, and the chicks are able to fly when they are just five or six weeks old.

Peregrine falcons and people: People working in skyscrapers enjoy watching the wild peregrines that now nest in big cities. The birds are also trained by falconers to kill animals and leave them for their owners.

Conservation status: Peregrine falcons are not listed as Endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), but they were put on the list of Endangered Species of the United States in 1970 when insect poisons got into their food. They are making a good comeback with the help of scientists and conservationists, and in 1999 they were removed from the list. ∎



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