5 Falcons Found in Pennsylvania: How to Identify Them and Where They Live

Peregrine falcon in flight
© Harry Collins Photography/Shutterstock.com

Written by Deniz Martinez

Updated: December 20, 2023

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Pennsylvania is home to three native falcon (Falco spp.) species. Additionally, two other falcon species appear in records in the state as rare vagrants. Read on to meet each of the five falcons found in Pennsylvania, plus find out what they look like and where they live.

1. American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)

American Kestrel

The American kestrel is the smallest, most abundant, and most colorful falcon in North America.

©Katie Duncan-Burt/iStock via Getty Images

Length: 8.7 – 12.2 in (22 – 31 cm)
Weight: 2.8 – 5.8 oz (80 – 165 g)
Wingspan: 20.1 – 24.0 in (51 – 61 cm)
(females larger than males)

The American kestrel is unusual amongst raptors because the male and female have strikingly different plumage patterns. Both sexes have a rust-brown back and tail, spotted white breast, and white face with two vertical black bars. However, the male has slate-blue wings, while the female has rufous wings as well as dark banding on the tail. Juvenile plumage resembles the adult.

American kestrels are year-round residents across the state. They commonly appear in agricultural areas and grasslands and perched on poles and fences along roadsides. They are cavity nesters and readily accept artificial nest boxes.

2. Merlin (Falco columbarius)

Merlin perched with fresh kill blue sky background

The merlin is only slightly larger than the American kestrel, though it is heavier with a noticeably more robust build.

©Noah Li/Shutterstock.com

Length: 9.4 – 11.8 in (24 – 30 cm)
Weight: 5.6 – 8.5 oz (160 – 240 g)
Wingspan: 20.9 – 26.8 in (53 – 68 cm)
(females larger than males)

There are three subspecies of merlin in North America, with males of each subspecies having different plumage coloration varying from pale to dark. The subspecies present in Pennsylvania is of an intermediate shade — generally slate blue-gray above and pale with heavy streaking below, with dark underwings and a dark tail with narrow white banding. Female and juvenile plumage is browner overall.

As a migratory species that breeds primarily in northern latitude conifer forests, merlins were once only seen in Pennsylvania during autumn migration season as they flew south for the winter. However, the species has been gradually expanding its breeding range southward, and the northernmost part of the state now falls within its southernmost breeding range.

3. Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Peregrine Falcon sitting on branch

With its incredible vertical flight velocity of 242 mph (389 kph), the peregrine falcon is the fastest animal in the world.

©Harry Collins Photography/Shutterstock.com

Length: 14.2 – 19.3 in (36 – 49 cm)
Weight: 18.7 – 56.4 oz (530 – 1600 g)
Wingspan: 39.4 – 43.3 in (100 – 110 cm)
(females larger than males)

The peregrine falcon is steely blue-gray above and white with heavy barring below, with a dark head and mustache. Juvenile plumage is distinguished by heavy vertical streaking rather than horizontal barring on the chest.

Peregrine falcons are year-round residents of the state. They naturally nest on ground scrapes along cliffsides. However, in modern times they have adapted well to urban areas and now can be spotted in cities nesting on tall buildings and bridges as well — and hunting lots of pigeons!

4. Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus)

The gyrfalcon is a bird of prey (Falco rusticolus), the largest of the falcon species. It breeds on Arctic coasts and tundra, and the islands of northern North America, Europe, and Asia. Falling snow

The gyrfalcon is the world’s largest falcon species.

©Michal Pesata/Shutterstock.com

Length: 18.9 – 25.2 in (48 – 64 cm)
Weight: 28.2 – 74.1 oz (800 -2100 g)
Wingspan: 48.4 in (123 cm)
(females larger than males)

While portrayals of the gyrfalcon commonly include its white morph plumage, there are also dark brown and gray morphs, with the latter being the most numerous form in North America. In all morphs, the plumage is barred on the back, wings, and tail, with variable spotting on the underparts. Juvenile plumage is distinguished by heavy streaking on the underparts.

Gyrfalcons breed in the high Arctic. During winter, many disperse further south, including into Canada and the northernmost regions of the United States. While Pennsylvania is well south of this usual dispersal range, a few wayward individuals are recorded as rare visitors to the state a handful of times in recent decades, most recently in 2018.

5. Prairie falcon (Falco mexicanus)

The Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus) is a medium-sized falcon of western North America, about the size of a Peregrine Falcon.

As residents of arid regions, prairie falcons take dust baths more often than water baths.

©Danita Delimont/Shutterstock.com

Length: 14.6 – 18.5 in (37 – 47 cm)
Weight: 14.8-38.8 oz (420 – 1100 g)
Wingspan: 35.4 44.5 in (90 – 113 cm)
(females larger and heavier)

The prairie falcon is a sandy brown above and pale with brown mottling below, with a white stripe over the eye and a brown mustache stripe. In flight, they can be identified by their prominent dark wingpits. Juvenile plumage is distinguished by heavy streaking on the underparts.

Prairie falcons are native to arid regions of Western North America. It is not as migratory as other North American falcons, typically only moving out of the coldest extremes of their breeding range and dispersing short distances still well to the west of Pennsylvania. However, wayward individuals have been recorded as rare visitors to the state a handful of times in recent decades, most recently in 2014.

Summary of 5 Falcons Found in Pennsylvania

SpeciesStatus In PA
1. American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)native, year-round resident across the state
2. Merlin Falco columbariusnative, breeds in the northernmost part of the state, seen statewide during autumn migration
3. Peregrine falcon Falco peregrinusnative, year-round resident across state
4. Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolusrare vagrant, last recorded in 2014
5. Prairie falcon Falco mexicanusnative, year-round resident across the state
SOURCES: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of Pennsylvania


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About the Author

Deniz Martinez is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on biogeography, ornithology, and mammalogy. Deniz has been researching, teaching, and writing about animals for over 10 years and holds both an MS degree from American Public University earned in 2016 and an MA degree from Lindenwood University earned in 2022. A resident of Pennsylvania, Deniz also runs Art History Animalia, a website and associated social media dedicated to investigating intersections of natural history with art & visual culture history via exploring animal iconography.

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