If wide population distribution is a sure sign of an animal’s evolutionary success then the falcon is a clear winner. The roughly 40 falcon species are distributed across every continent except Antarctica — and while there’s a lot of variety between them, they all share some deadly characteristics. Most notable are their thin and tapered wings which allow them to hit flight speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour and make the most of their razor-sharp talons and viciously hooked beaks. Here are some of the most prominent different types of falcon birds along with information on what makes some of these distinct species so special.
1. Peregrine Falcon: The Ultimate Aerial Predator
The peregrine falcon is the most populous and widely dispersed raptor in the world, an accomplishment that really underscores how deadly and effective these birds of prey really are. Because regardless of whatever environment they find themselves in, the peregrine falcon is always an apex predator. Researchers have even documented potential prey species like the western sandpiper employing generational adjustments to their migration patterns to avoid sites with prevalent peregrine falcon populations. There’s plenty of reason for this. The dive speed of a peregrine falcon can rival the top speed of a cheetah, and other birds are the most likely victims of a peregrine falcon’s attack. Pigeons represent the most common prey for peregrine falcons, but they’ve been known to snatch up waterfowl and songbirds as well.
Falcons will typically take advantage of their speed to dive bomb prey, and their bodies have evolved over generations to improve the efficiency of these tactics. They’ll typically use their raw momentum to throw aerial or terrestrial prey off balance, but they employ sharp and powerful beaks to actually kill their victims. The prevalence of DDT and other pesticides devastated peregrine falcons over the past few decades, but their incredibly capable hunting skills have allowed them to bounce back admirably.
There are a lot of characteristics that make the peregrine falcon such an effective and lethal hunter, and you can learn about them here.
2. Grey Falcon: The World’s Rarest Falcon
Only around two thousand members of the grey falcon species are left in existence, and all of them can be found hunting through Australia and nearby Tasmania. Although it’s a bit smaller than the peregrine falcon, this species has a very similar build and employs similar hunting tactics. They tend to prefer wide-open prairies, desert, and grasslands where they can then swoop in on unsuspecting prey. Smaller birds — particularly songbirds, budgerigar, and pigeons — consist of roughly 88% of a grey falcon’s diet, but they’ve been known to feast on small mammals and reptiles as well. Some grey falcons have also been seen along the coast plucking up prey that surfaces on the water.
Despite being endangered, grey falcons tend to be the apex predators in whatever environments they inhabit, and that comes with a number of privileges. One of the more convenient is the fact that a grey falcon never has to build its own nest. Instead, they’ll make use of existing nests built by ravens and birds of prey. These birds will typically only lay two or three eggs a season, making it more difficult to reach higher levels of population stability. Grey falcons employ wide hunting areas, and their population loss is largely thanks to the encroachment of human farming practices.
3. American Kestrel: The World’s Smallest Falcon
The average American kestrel is roughly the size of a blue jay, but they haven’t lost an ounce of the killer instinct and fierce personalities that their larger kin are known for. They’re also one of the most successful birds of prey on the planet and are currently recognized as the most common hawk in the United States. To accommodate their small size, these birds take on significantly smaller prey than the standard peregrine falcon. Large insects like caterpillars and grasshoppers are regularly on the menu, and the American kestrel also feeds on smaller birds, frogs, reptiles, and petite mammals like voles and mice.
This species may be prevalent throughout its United States habitats, but that doesn’t mean that it’s free from serious threats. The American kestrel is commonly preyed upon by larger birds of prey like Cooper’s hawks and they’re often killed by humans on their migration path. Not all American kestrels migrate, though ones that live along the coast are more likely to do so than birds further inland — possibly a result of more favorable conditions in interior North America during the fall and winter months. Despite facing perils on this long route, the American kestrel isn’t going anywhere. Out of the different types of falcon birds, this species ranks among the most abundant with a population of about four million.
4. Gyrfalcon: The World’s Largest Falcon
Among the different types of falcon birds, the gyrfalcon has the notable reputation of being the largest. The wingspan of the typical gyrfalcon is roughly two feet long, and this bird weighs in at approximately three pounds. That body mass and weight — combined with the high energy demands of persistent flight — creates a situation where gyrfalcons in the mating season have to eat approximately half their weight in food per day. A bulk of a gyrfalcon’s nutrition comes from the roughly one-pound rock ptarmigans who share the same habitat — and the populations of these two bird species are tightly in alignment. Gyrfalcons help manage ptarmigan populations, but its unlikely gyrfalcons would survive as they do now without them. They’ve also been known to eat gulls, ravens, songbirds, and owls.
The preferred habit for the gyrfalcon is the High Arctic, and it’s an arrangement that leaves these birds mostly undisturbed by humans for now. Taiga and tundra offer an open and expansive perspective for spotting prey, while cliffs and deciduous trees offer perfect places to perch in preparation for an attack. These birds are rarely seen in habitable areas, but some migrate far enough south to be seen in the northern United States and Canada.
5. Prairie Falcon: A Popular Choice For Falconry
If you haven’t spent your life studying birds, chances are that you wouldn’t be able to distinguish between a prairie falcon and a peregrine falcon at a glance. Both have similar markings, coloring, and features, although the prairie falcon is a bit smaller than its more prolific counterpart. They employ familiar hunting methods as well. Found throughout the southwest American states, prairie hawks will typically perch on sheer cliffs that protect them from potential predators and offer them a wide perspective on the plains and flatland below them. While the peregrine falcon is generally regarded as a faster diver bomber, that’s mostly because they launch themselves from higher altitudes.
The prairie falcon further distinguishes itself from others thanks to its diet. While many falcons tend to prioritize smaller birds that they simply pluck from the sky, prairie hawks prefer to prey on mammals. Ground squirrels make up a majority of this hawk’s diet, but they also feed on cottontail rabbits and kangaroo rats. Birds still constitute a part of their diet, with both doves and even burrowing owls being at risk for attack. Despite not putting much effort into building nests, mating pairs will spend a lot of time finding the right place to roost. Unfortunately, they often end up in competition with peregrine falcons for nesting sites — and the results are often deadly.
6. Aplomado Falcon: Beautiful But Imperiled
Found throughout North America, the Aplomado has been on the endangered species list since 1986 and remains the only falcon in the United States to still be on this list. While conservation efforts have led to a small population of Aplomado Falcons in Texas, the majority of these birds are now found throughout Central and South America. Aplomado falcons have been forced to live in densely wooded tropical environments, and that’s forced them to develop more sophisticated strategies than falcons with open plains and valleys as habitats. Aplomado falcons will hunt in either pairs or family groups — flushing out potential prey so that their partners can go in for the kill.
Mating pairs on the hunt together will even share snacks mid-flight. Males are usually the ones to deliver the kill, and they’ll pass meat to their partners with their sharp talons. But if the female grows impatient or hungry, she’s likely to latch on to the male until he decides to share. Tropical birds and insects constitute the majority of an Aplomado falcon’s diet, but they’re also not above eating crabs and small rodents when the opportunity presents itself. Like other falcons, these falcons occupy the nests of other birds rather than crafting their own.
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