Falcon facts for kids
Quick facts for kidsFalcon
Temporal range: Late Miocene to present
|Brown falcon (Falco berigora) in Victoria, Australia|
|Falco subbuteo (Eurasian hobby)
38; see text.
Falcons are small birds of prey and are related to hawks and eagles. They usually have pointed wings and long tails.
In some countries falcons are used in falconry. This means people catch the birds and make them hunt for them. Long ago this was a way for people to get more food but today it is a sport.
The genus Falco was introduced in 1758 by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus in the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae. The type species is the Merlin (Falco columbarius). The genus name Falco is Late Latin meaning a "falcon" from falx, falcis, meaning "a sickle", referring to the claws of the bird. In Middle English and Old French, the title faucon refers generically to several captive raptor species.
Adult falcons have thin, tapered wings, which enable them to fly at high speed and change direction rapidly. Fledgling falcons, in their first year of flying, have longer flight feathers, which make their configuration more like that of a general-purpose bird such as a broad wing. This makes flying easier while learning the exceptional skills required to be effective hunters as adults. Like hawks, most falcons have dark gray or brown backs and wings, with white undersides.
The falcons are the largest genus in the Falconinae subfamily of Falconidae, which itself also includes another subfamily comprising caracaras and a few other species. All these birds kill with their beaks, using a tomial "tooth" on the side of their beaks—unlike the hawks, eagles, and other birds of prey in the Accipitridae, which use their feet.
The largest falcon is the gyrfalcon at up to 65 cm in length. The smallest falcon species is the Pygmy falcon which measures just 20 cm. As with hawks and owls, falcons exhibit sexual dimorphism, with the females typically larger than the males, thus allowing a wider range of prey species.
Some small falcons with long, narrow wings are called "hobbies" and some which hover while hunting are called "kestrels".
Compared to other birds of prey, the fossil record of the falcons is not well distributed in time. The oldest fossils tentatively assigned to this genus are from the Late Miocene, less than 10 million years ago. Falcons are not closely related to other birds of prey, and their nearest relatives are parrots and songbirds.
Vision and speed
As is the case with many birds of prey, falcons have exceptional powers of vision; the visual acuity of one species has been measured at 2.6 times that of a normal human. Peregrine falcons have been recorded diving at speeds of 320 km/h (200 mph), making them the fastest-moving creatures on Earth; the fastest recorded dive attained a vertical speed of 390 km/h (240 mph).
The peregrine falcon is found over most of the world and is famous for hunting birds by diving down on them at 320 km/h (200 mi/h). It was nearly wiped out in North America by the use of pesticides, but has since made a recovery.
Falcons are birds of prey in the genus Falco, which includes about 40 species. Falcons are widely distributed on all continents of the world except Antarctica, though closely related raptors did occur there in the Eocene.
Most falcons eat small mammals that they hunt using eyesight, although some species hunt other birds, which they take in flight.
On the Moroccan island of Mogador, falcons seem to imprison small birds by trapping them in crevasses, presumably saving them to eat later.
Mogador has the ruins of a fortress, a mosque and a prison. Today the island is a nature reserve, where Eleonora’s falcons nest among the ruins. They hunt migrating warblers, hoopoes and other birds. Researchers came across small birds trapped in deep cavities, their flight and tail feathers removed. The birds were unable to move their wings or use their dangling legs.
Eleonora’s falcons have been seen building up larders of up to 20 dead birds during migration season, when prey is plentiful. But "storing snacks that are still alive could be a unique behaviour," said an expert.
Falcons are roughly divisible into three or four groups. The first contains the kestrels (probably excepting the American kestrel); usually small and stocky falcons of mainly brown upperside colour and sometimes sexually dimorphic; three African species that are generally gray in colour stand apart from the typical members of this group. Kestrels feed chiefly on terrestrial vertebrates and invertebrates of appropriate size, such as rodents, reptiles, or insects.
The second group contains slightly larger (on average) species, the hobbies and relatives. These birds are characterized by considerable amounts of dark slate-gray in their plumage; their malar areas are nearly always black. They feed mainly on smaller birds.
Third are the peregrine falcon and its relatives, variably sized powerful birds that also have a black malar area (except some very light color morphs), and often a black cap, as well. They are very fast birds with a maximum speed of 390 kilometres per hour. Otherwise, they are somewhat intermediate between the other groups, being chiefly medium grey with some lighter or brownish colours on their upper sides. They are, on average, more delicately patterned than the hobbies and, if the hierofalcons are excluded (see below), this group typically contains species with horizontal barring on their undersides. As opposed to the other groups, where tail colour varies much in general but little according to evolutionary relatedness, However, the fox and greater kestrels can be told apart at first glance by their tail colours, but not by much else; they might be very close relatives and are probably much closer to each other than the lesser and common kestrels. The tails of the large falcons are quite uniformly dark grey with inconspicuous black banding and small, white tips, though this is probably plesiomorphic. These large Falco species feed on mid-sized birds and terrestrial vertebrates.
Very similar to these, and sometimes included therein, are the four or so species of hierofalcons (literally, "hawk-falcons"). They represent taxa with, usually, more phaeomelanins, which impart reddish or brown colors, and generally more strongly patterned plumage reminiscent of hawks. Their undersides have a lengthwise pattern of blotches, lines, or arrowhead marks.
While these three or four groups, loosely circumscribed, are an informal arrangement, they probably contain several distinct clades in their entirety.
The sequence follows the taxonomic order of White et al. (1996), except for adjustments in the kestrel sequence.
|Image||Common name||Scientific name||Distribution|
|Malagasy kestrel||Falco newtoni||Madagascar, Mayotte, and the Comores.|
|Seychelles kestrel||Falco araeus||Seychelles Islands|
|Mauritius kestrel||Falco punctatus||Mauritius|
|Spotted kestrel||Falco moluccensis||Wallacea and Java|
|Nankeen kestrel or Australian kestrel||Falco cenchroides||Australia and New Guinea|
|Common kestrel||Falco tinnunculus||widespread in Europe, Asia, and Africa, as well as occasionally reaching the east coast of North America.|
|Rock kestrel||Falco rupicolus||northwestern Angola and southern Democratic Republic of Congo to southern Tanzania, and south to South Africa|
|Greater kestrel||Falco rupicoloides||Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, parts of Angola and Zambia and in much of South Africa|
|Fox kestrel||Falco alopex||south of the Sahara from Mali eastwards as far as Ethiopia and north-west Kenya. It occasionally wanders west to Senegal, the Gambia and Guinea and south to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.|
|Lesser kestrel||Falco naumanni||Afghanistan and Central Asia, to China and Mongolia.|
|Grey kestrel||Falco ardosiaceus||Ethiopia and western parts of Kenya and Tanzania|
|Dickinson's kestrel||Falco dickinsoni||Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi along with north-eastern South Africa|
|Banded kestrel||Falco zoniventris||Madagascar|
|Red-necked falcon||Falco chicquera||Africa, India|
|Red-footed falcon||Falco vespertinus||southern Russia and Ukraine|
|Amur falcon||Falco amurensis||south-eastern Siberia and Northern China|
|Eleonora's falcon||Falco eleonorae||Greece,Cyprus, the Canary Islands, Ibiza and off Spain, Italy, Croatia, Morocco and Algeria.|
|Sooty falcon||Falco concolor||northeastern Africa to the southern Persian Gulf region|
|American kestrel or "sparrow hawk"||Falco sparverius||central and western Alaska across northern Canada to Nova Scotia, and south throughout North America, into central Mexico and the Caribbean.|
|Aplomado falcon||Falco femoralis||northern Mexico and Trinidad locally to southern South America|
|Merlin or "pigeon hawk"||Falco columbarius||Eurasia, North Africa, North America|
|Bat falcon||Falco rufigularis||tropical Mexico, Central and South America, and Trinidad|
|Orange-breasted falcon||Falco deiroleucus||southern Mexico to northern Argentina.|
|Eurasian hobby||Falco subbuteo||Africa, Europe and Asia.|
|African hobby||Falco cuvierii||Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast,
Eswatini, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
|Oriental hobby||Falco severus||eastern Himalayas and ranges southwards through Indochina to Australasia|
|Australian hobby or little falcon||Falco longipennis||Australia|
|New Zealand falcon or Ngarangi or kārearea||Falco novaeseelandiae||New Zealand|
|Brown falcon||Falco berigora||Australia and New Guinea.|
|Grey falcon||Falco hypoleucos||Australia|
|Black falcon||Falco subniger||Australia.|
|Lanner falcon||Falco biarmicus||Africa, southeast Europe and just into Asia|
|Laggar falcon||Falco jugger||southeastern Iran, southeastern Afghanistan, Pakistan, through India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and northwestern Myanmar.|
|Saker falcon||Falco cherrug||Ethiopia, the Arabian peninsula, northern Pakistan and western China|
|Gyrfalcon||Falco rusticolus||eastern and western Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Iceland and Norway.|
|Prairie falcon||Falco mexicanus||western North America.|
|Peregrine falcon||Falco peregrinus||Cosmopolitan|
|Taita falcon||Falco fasciinucha||Kenya|
- Réunion kestrel, Falco duboisi – extinct (about 1700)
- Falco medius (Late Miocene of Cherevichnyi, Ukraine)
- ?Falco sp. (Late Miocene of Idaho)
- Falco sp. (Early Pliocene of Kansas)
- Falco sp. (Early Pliocene of Bulgaria – Early Pleistocene of Spain and Czech Republic)
- Falco oregonus (Early/Middle Pliocene of Fossil Lake, Oregon) – possibly not distinct from a living species
- Falco umanskajae (Late Pliocene of Kryzhanovka, Ukraine) – includes "Falco odessanus", a nomen nudum
- ?Falco bakalovi (Late Pliocene of Varshets, Bulgaria)
- Falco antiquus (Middle Pleistocene of Noailles, France and possibly Horvőlgy, Hungary)
- Cuban kestrel, Falco kurochkini (Late Pleistocene/Holocene of Cuba, West Indies)
- Falco chowi (China)
- Falco bulgaricus (Late Miocene of Hadzhidimovo, Bulgaria)
Several more paleosubspecies of extant species also been described.