What types of falcons can you find in the United States?
Lucky for you, no matter where you live in the United States, you should be able to find at least a few falcon species nearby!
Falcons are incredible birds of prey that are known for their speed and exceptional hunting abilities. For example, nothing on the planet is faster than a Peregrine Falcon when it’s diving for prey. These incredible raptors have been recorded at speeds up to 200 mph (320 km/h)!
Below is a list of the 7 types of falcons in the United States!
Make sure to pay attention to the range maps to see which falcons live near you! For each species, I have included a few photographs, along with their most common sounds, to help you identify any birds you are lucky enough to observe.
#1. Peregrine Falcon
Peregrine Falcons can be found everywhere in the United States, and are actually located on every continent except Antarctica. Because of their fondness of nesting on the sides of tall buildings, these falcons are common in cities where they can become quite the local celebrities!
There is little color differentiation amongst individual birds and sexes. Both males and females have a slate grey/bluish-black back with faint barring. Their chest is white to tan with thin dark lines. Immature birds are often much browner than adults. Like almost all species of falcons, females are larger than males.
Peregrine Falcon Range Map
Peregrine Falcons have the honor of being the FASTEST animal on the planet!
Don’t be fooled by stories that the cheetah is the fastest creature. Oh sure, they can crank it up to 75 mph (120 kph), and that is amazing for being on the ground. But when a Peregrine Falcon dives, it can reach speeds of up to 200 mph (320 kph)! And it starts its journey from as high as 3,000 feet, so it cruises at these high speeds for a considerable distance.
CHECK OUT THE VIDEO BELOW TO SEE THE INCREDIBLE DIVING ABILITIES OF THE PEREGRINE.
At the high speeds that these falcons can travel, their lungs should inflate and burst. But because they have a bony bump in their nose, it disrupts the airflow just like the dome shape on the front of a jet engine. Nature never ceases to amaze!
Peregrine Falcons primarily eat other birds. In fact, at least 450 different types of birds have been documented as their prey. They are not picky and take almost anything they can catch, including ducks, gulls, pigeons, and songbirds. These raptors have been observed killing individuals as small as a hummingbird, and as large as a Sandhill Crane. When they are not eating birds, it’s common for these birds of prey to hunt bats.
You won’t hear a Peregrine Falcon make much noise, except for around its nesting site as an alarm call. It sounds like “kack-kack-kack-kack.” Press the PLAY button above to hear an example!
Length: 13-23 inches / 34-58 cm
Weight: 12-53 oz. / 330-1500 gm
Wingspan: 29-47 inches / 74-120 cm
#2. American Kestrel
The American Kestrel is the smallest falcon in the United States and is roughly the size of an American Robin. Don’t let the tiny stature fool you, though, because this raptor is an accomplished hunter.
You may have heard of a kestrel’s alternate name, which is the Sparrow Hawk. This name was given because they will take sparrows and other birds of that size right out of the air!
American Kestrel Range Map
American Kestrels are the most widespread and numerous falcons on the continent, and common to see in the United States.
One of their favorite strategies to catch prey is to hover in the breeze from a relatively low height, looking for insects, invertebrates, small rodents, and birds. Their diverse diet is one reason they can occupy ecological niches from central Alaska down to the southernmost tip of South America. Life can be tough when you’re the smallest falcon since they are sometimes eaten as prey by larger raptors, as well as rat snakes and corn snakes!
American Kestrels are unlike most other falcons because males and females look different!
Males are quite blue or grey in the wing area, with white bellies and flanks having black barring and/or spots, but their backs are rust-colored (rufous) with black bars, but only on the lower half. Females, on the other hand, have rusty colored backs and wings, but with brown barring. Their bellies tend to be buff or tan, with significant brown streaks. The heads of both sexes are interchangeable, however, being white with a blue-grey cap.
Kestrels have a distinct call that sounds much like it’s saying “klee-klee-klee” or “killy, killy, killy,” which is usually repeated rapidly. Press the PLAY button above to hear an example!
The American Kestrel is comfortable around people, and will quite commonly use human-made nest boxes to raise their young. Their numbers have been steadily declining, so any help we can give them is beneficial. They are relatively common in the United States as long there are at least a few trees around and can be found in many habitats, including parks, pastures, meadows, grasslands, deserts, and meadows.
Length: 9-12 inches / 22-31 cm
Weight: 2.8-5.8 oz. / 80-165 gm
Wingspan: 20-24 inches / 51-61 cm
Merlins are small, fierce falcons that are widespread across the United States. With that being said, they are not that common to observe and are unpredictable in regards to their range. They are a bit larger than the American Kestrel, with a stockier build, sharply pointed wings, and medium-length tail.
Merlin males typically have a streaky black to silver-grey back and wings, and a light-colored (tending to a slightly orange) chest. But their coloration changes depending on their specific range and if they are male or female. Females tend to be lighter than males and are brown-grey to dark brown on the back and have a whitish front with brown spots below.
Merlin Range Map
Merlins can be found almost everywhere in North America.
The specific habitat they use depends a bit on exactly where you live. Shrublands, grasslands, boreal forests, parks, cemeteries, prairies, coastal areas, and near rivers are all suitable habitat. To complicate things, these raptors migrate and move around. Most individuals migrate south once the weather gets cold, but there are a few places in the country where you can see Merlins year-round.
You can always identify a Merlin by its rapid wingbeats and because it is so small. But despite its diminutive stature, this falcon is an incredibly fierce bird and uses surprise attacks to bring down its prey. It is so bold that it has been seen attacking trains and cars that enter its territory. The Merlin is one bird you don’t want to annoy or make nervous!
While generally silent, it’s possible to hear a loud, high cackle that sounds like “klee-klee-klee.” Typically these calls are made during courtship or when showing aggression. Press the PLAY button above to hear an example!
Merlins rely on their speed and athleticism to catch prey!
Mated pairs have been known to work cooperatively, with one driving prey right into the claws of their partner. Like most falcons, Merlins eat a wide variety of foods, including dragonflies, moths, bats, voles, and reptiles. But smaller birds are its primary source of nutrition. Sparrows, sandpipers, larks, pipits, and even the similarly sized rock pigeons are all perfectly acceptable.
Like most falcons, Merlins don’t build their own nests, but instead, they reuse other birds’ abandoned homes. Their favorites are nests built by crows, jays, hawks, or magpies. It’s also rare for them to reuse the same nests, instead opting to locate a new one each breeding season.
Length: 9-13 inches / 23-33 cm
Weight: 4.4-10.6 oz. / 125-300 gm
Wingspan: 21-23 inches / 53-58 cm
#4. Prairie Falcon
You’ll find the Prairie Falcon in the openness of the west. Specifically, look for this raptor in grasslands, shrubby deserts, farm fields, and pastures. If there are too many trees around, then you probably won’t find this beautiful bird of prey!
The Prairie Falcon and Peregrine Falcon look similar to each other. In fact, these two species diverged from a common ancestor about 4 million years ago. Although approximately the same size, the Prairie Falcon is a considerably lighter bird and requires less food as a result.
Prairie Falcon Range Map
This bird is found just about anywhere in the western half of the United States and parts of Canada and Mexico.
Prairie Falcons are generally silent, but they will sound an alarm call (kik-kik-kik-kik) when defending their nest or territory. Press the PLAY button above to hear an example!
These particular falcons tend to eat whatever is abundant and easily caught. For example, in summer, they eat mostly small mammals, such as ground squirrels. During winter, their diet switches to primarily birds, such as Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks. Individuals will also cache food for times when food is scarce.
Prairie Falcons have a pale brown back, with the segmented appearance of a turtle shell, but a considerably lighter-colored tail. Its chest is white with vertical dark brown stripes, while the neck is plain white, and the face is slightly buff.
Prairie Falcons like to play!
They have been observed picking up manure, carrying it up high and then dropping it, only to catch the cow waste before it hits the ground. It’s thought that this activity may help sharpen their hunting skills. As they say, practice makes perfect!
Length: 14.5-18.5 in / 37-47 cm
Weight: 15-39 oz. / 425-1106 gm
Wingspan: 35.5-44.5 in / 90-113 cm
The first thing we need to discuss when it comes to Gyrfalcons is how to pronounce its name! As much as I want to say “Gear-falcon” every time, that is incorrect. The correct way to pronounce the name is “JER·falcon.” The beginning sounds like the letter “J,” and not the letter “G.” (Click this link to hear someone saying “Gyrfalcon.”)
Ok, now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk more about this magnificent raptor! The Gyrfalcon, sometimes known as the Gyr, is the largest species of falcon in the world! These raptors are birds of the Arctic, and they breed on the sides of cliffs in remote areas of Alaska and Canada. Luckily, they live in secluded areas, Gyrfalcons are safe from human disturbances, but they do face challenges from climate change.
Gyrfalcons are a very polymorphic species, which means that its feathers and plumage vary a bit. These falcons range in color from almost entirely white to very dark. Some of the morphs make the Gyrfalcon look similar to a Peregrine Falcon. Also, males and females show no color differences. The only difference between sexes is that females are larger and bulkier than males.
During winter months, Gyrs have to come south from the high Arctic to find food. Depending on the specific year, you never know how far south they may come!
Gyrfalcons will eat almost ANYTHING they can catch.
The long list includes such things as hares, ground squirrels, young Arctic Foxes, lemmings, songbirds, shorebirds, seabirds, waterfowl, and even other raptors, such as owls, hawks, and the Peregrine Falcon! With that being said, their primary source of food is ptarmigans.
As far as sounds go, Gyrfalcons make a few. When they are alarmed, look for a “kak kak kak” noise, which you can hear above. When they are more relaxed and foraging for food, you may hear a “chup” sound, which is more drawn out than the alarm call.
Length: 19-26 inches / 48-65 cm
Weight: 1¾-5 lbs. / 794-2268 gm
Wingspan: 43-63 inches / 110-160 cm
#6. Aplomado Falcon
This falcon is incredibly beautiful and colorful. The Aplomado Falcon was once widespread across the southwestern United States, but they are now endangered. They were doing quite well until the 1930s, which is when rampant pesticide use (DDT) caused devastation by making their eggshells so thin they could not hatch. Luckily, the use of DDT has been banned since 1972.
Another continued problem for these birds is the degradation of their habitat. Aplomado Falcons rely upon grasslands. Unfortunately, for the last hundred years, an incredible amount of land has been converted to farmland and pastures, which is detrimental to these raptors!
Aplomado Falcon Range Map
But luckily, conservation groups have been working hard to help these birds. For example, about 1,500 Aplomado Falcons were reintroduced to the southwest, and these individuals are now breeding and expanding! Conservationist groups have also worked with local landowners and created agreements to protect about two million acres/800 hectares in perpetuity. The birds are now doing much better, but more work remains before they are considered a stable population.
Aplomado Falcons are expert hunters, relying on their speed to catch prey.
When flying, these guys come in fast and low early in the morning, skimming the mesquite bushes to grab some sparrows or doves for breakfast. These raptors are even known to run on the ground to catch prey!
An interesting fact about these falcons is that they hunt cooperatively in pairs! One of the falcons works to flush prey out of a hiding place, while the other one is waiting to grab and make the kill.
The main sound of an Aplomado Falcon is very similar to an American Kestrel. Phonetically, it sounds like they are saying “kek.” This call can be given as a single note or put together as a chain of “kek-kek-kek-kek.” Press the PLAY button above to hear an example!
These birds of prey seem to be comfortable raising their young in quite a wide range of locations. Look for nests at the top of tall yucca trees, power pole cross beams, or even right in the dirt. An interesting fact about their nests is that Aplomado Falcons never build their own! They take over unoccupied nests of other species such as crows, jays, hawks, ravens, or magpies.
Length: 14-18 inches / 35-45 cm
Weight: 6-14 oz. / 170-400 gm
Wingspan: 30-36 inches / 70-100 cm
#7. Crested Caracara
- Large, long-legged, and the appearance of a flat head.
- Black body and cap. White neck and cheeks.
- Orangish skin around their face. Yellow legs.
Crested Caracaras are incredibly unique. While they are technically falcons, most people think they look like hawks. But to make things more confusing, they act like vultures, as their primary food source is carrion. As a result, they are often seen scavenging on carcasses next to vultures.
As if you are not already confused about Crested Caracaras, one of the best places to find these falcons in the southern USA is ON THE GROUND, as they spend a lot of time here walking around. It’s also fairly common for these falcons to run down live prey, which includes reptiles, insects, and small mammals.
Crested Caracaras are not that common in the United States and are seen more often in Mexico and South America. But if you come across one, there is no other bird that looks similar!
Which falcons have you seen before in the United States?
Leave a comment below!
To learn more about other raptors near you, check out these guides!