Falcons are small, fast birds of prey with long, pointed wings. They’re speed and ferocity have made them popular birds, both with bird-watchers and falconers- people who train birds-of-prey professionally. Falcons live all over the world, and there are as many as 35 species of true falcons in the genus falco of the family Falconidae (which includes hawks and other birds of prey), according to Britannica.com. This article however will focus on 8 types of falcons in North America specifically.
We’ll look at some pictures and learn some fun facts about each one. Let’s have a look!
8 types of falcons in North America
The 8 species of falcons in North America are the American kestrel, merlin, peregrine falcon, prairie falcon, gyrfalcon, aplomado falcon, crested caracara, and the collared forest falcon.
1. American kestrel
- Scientific name: Falco sparverius
- Length: 8.7-12.2 in
- Weight: 2.8-5.8 oz
- Wingspan: 20.1-24.0 in
The kestrel is one of the most common predatory birds in North America. Kestrels are the smallest type of falcons in North America. It lives throughout the continental U.S. and much of South America year-round, with migratory populations in Canada and Central America. Their spots and vibrant colors really set them apart from the other falcons on this list.
I mentioned that American Kestrels are the smallest falcons, but they’re also actually the smallest birds of prey in North America. Their small size means they hunt mostly small creatures like grasshoppers, lizards, mice, and sometimes small birds. Kestrels can live in a wide variety of environments, including urban settings, which means they’re frequently sighted by people in large cities.
- Scientific name: Falco columbarius
- Length: 9.4-11.8 in
- Weight: 5.6-8.5 oz
- Wingspan: 20.9-26.8 in
Merlins live all over the northern hemisphere, with populations in North America, Europe, and Asia. There are 9 different subspecies, with 3 of those being found in found in North America. According to allaboutbirds.org, those 3 subspecies are:
- Black merlins of the Pacific Northwest with dark plumage
- Prairie merlins of northern prairies and aspen parkland with pale plumage
- Boreal (taiga) merlins of northern forests, which have intermediate plumage
When hunting, they fly fast and low, often just 3 feet or less above the ground. Birds are a common prey, and the merlin’s remarkable speed and agility enable them to capture other birds mid-flight. They’re known to shadow larger birds of prey; they wait for species like the sharp-shinned hawk to scare birds into the open. When these birds escape from the larger, slower hawks, the merlin often captures them for itself.
3. Peregrine falcon
- Scientific name: Falco peregrinus
- Length: 14.2-19.3 in
- Weight: 18.7-56.4 oz
- Wingspan: 39.4-43.3 in
Quite possibly the most famous of all types of falcons, the peregrine has earned its fame by being the fasted bird in the world. In fact, it’s not just the fastest bird- it’s the fastest animal of any kind in the world. When hunting, the peregrine spots its prey from high in the air and dives to attack. It’s during this dive that they achieve their top speed of over 200 miles per hour. The impact alone is usually enough to kill their prey.
Peregrine falcons can be found on every continent except Antarctica, and they’re migratory birds in most places. Like kestrels, peregrine falcons have adapted remarkably well to urban environments. In the wild they prefer to perch and nest on high cliff faces, however tall buildings are also a ideal habitat since cities are full of the peregrine’s favorite meal… pigeons.
- Scientific name: Falco rusticolus
- Length: 19-25.5 in
- Weight: 28.5-74 oz
- Wingspan: 43-63 in
Gyrfalcons are among the largest types of falcons in North America, often reaching sizes greater than most hawks. They like cold, northern habitats and breed in the open tundra above the Arctic Circle. Still, like most birds, they prefer to avoid the harsh winters there. They’re not warm-weather birds by any means.
During the winter, you’ll find them in the river valleys, grasslands, and farmlands across their range. They like wide open habitat with high bird populations for them to prey on. They’re somewhat unique in that they often prefer to perch on the ground, so don’t just scan the skies for them.
5. Prairie falcon
- Length: 14.6-18.5 in
- Weight: 14.8-38.8 oz
- Wingspan: 35.4-44.5 in
Prairie Falcons prefer wide open spaces like grasslands and fields where they soar high overhead looking for their next meal which is usually small mammals or other birds. They are found throughout much of the western half of the United States.
Prairie falcons, like peregrines, are one of the most popular birds for falconry and hunting. Look for them soaring overhead with a pair of binoculars, or even perched along fence posts or on cliffs. Their brown colors do make them somewhat camouflaged and difficult to spot sometimes. Prairie falcons are larger than a merlin, but slightly smaller than a peregrine falcon.
6. Crested Caracara
- Length: 19.3-22.8 in
- Weight: 37.0-45.9 oz
- Wingspan: 48.0-49.2 in
The crested caracara looks unlike any of the other species of falcons in North America. They are most common in Central America but are found in a few spotty areas of the Southern U.S. in states like Arizona and Texas. They look like a combination of a hawk and a vulture with their large, sharp talons and their orange faces. In size they are a bit larger than peregrine falcons.
Crested caracaras are omnivores but are though to feed mainly on carrion. They are commonly perched high up on tree branches, however they are also commonly seen on the ground and may be spotted eating roadkill and other dead animals. This would explain the vulture-like face that they have.
7. Aplomado falcon
- Length: 15.0-16.9 in
- Weight: 7.3-17.6 oz
- Wingspan: 35.0 in
In the United States, the aplomado falcon is only found in Texas and New Mexico. They are still quite uncommon in these states, and have a sparse year-round population in just a few areas near the Mexico border. In many cases these raptors can look like a larger version of the American Kestrel with the streaks on the side of their heads and their colorful plumage.
Aplomados are not only rare in the United States, but also on the endangered species list in both the U.S. and Mexico. However, there are currently efforts to reintroduce them to Southern Texas and the United States that you can learn more about here.
8. Collared forest falcon
- Scientific name: Micrastur semitorquatus
- Length: 18-23 in
- Weight: 20-30 oz
- Wingspan: 28-34 in
While these large falcons may occasionally be rarely spotted in Mexico and even the far southern U.S. at times, they are more common in Central and South America. As the name suggests, collared forest falcons live in rainforests and swampy forests where they hunt for their prey that consists of small rodents and other such prey.
Forest falcons are typically considered uncommon, however they are more widespread in some areas like northern South America. Not as much is known about this species as the other types of falcons on this list. The collared forest falcon is a true falcon nonetheless.