Falcons are birds of prey, but different from eagles, kites, and hawks in several ways. Unlike these other raptors, falcons kill their prey with their beaks rather than their talons. They also tend to be smaller, faster, hunt more birds, and have longer wings, among other differences. There are 7 species of falcons that regularly visit the United States, but in this article we will look at the 4 species of falcons in Alaska.
4 Falcons in Alaska
The 4 species of falcons found in Alaska are the American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, and Gyrfalcon.
Let’s learn a little about each species.
1. American Kestrel
- Scientific name: Falco tinnunculus
- Length: 8.7-12.2 in
- Weight: 2.8-5.8 oz
- Wingspan: 20.1-24.0 in
The American Kestrel is North America’s smallest falcon, larger than a robin, but slightly smaller than a crow. But don’t let their small stature fool you. Kestrels are fierce predators that can take down other birds as big or bigger than they are, such as Northern Flickers.
They primarily feed on insects and invertebrates like grasshoppers, beetles, cicadas, dragonflies, moths and spiders. They also eat mice and other small rodents, bats, lizards, frogs and songbirds.
These tiny falcons have small heads and unique coloring of rusty browns and bluish grays. Both sexes have black barring on their back, and two black stripes on the face. Females are mostly rusty colored, while males have bluish-gray on their head and wings.
Look for them in the summer when they are most active. They often perch on fence posts and telephone wires, especially around farmland. Kestrels can position their body into the wind and hover in place, scanning the ground below.
The American Kestrel comes to eastern and central Alaska during the spring and summer to breed. They use old woodpecker holes, tree hollows, rock crevices and other nooks. They also use human provided nest boxes. Males will scout out possible nest locations, then let the female choose.
- Scientific name: Falco columbarius
- Length: 9.4-11.8 in
- Weight: 5.6-8.5 oz
- Wingspan: 20.9-26.8 in
Merlins are small falcons found throughout nearly all of Alaska. They come up to Alaska and Canada to breed in the spring and summer, then most head to the southern U.S., Mexico and Central America to winter. However, a population remains year-round in southeastern and southcentral Alaska, along the Gulf.
Their primary food source is other birds, such as house sparrows, dickcissels, sandpipers and other shorebirds. Merlins are experts at the high speed attack, zooming across the ground horizontally or even chasing their prey from below, forcing them higher and higher until they get tired. They have sometimes been observed hunting large flocks of birds in pairs.
Merlins are slightly larger than kestrels, with a stocky body and squarish head. They have a heavily streaked chest and belly, but their coloring can differ slightly from gray to brown due to geographic location. In flight, they are heavily barred on the underside of their wings.
Merlins are very widespread raptors and can be found in some capacity in all of North America. In the early 20th century their population was on the decline, but they have since recovered and are listed as low concern.
Merlins are usually on the move stalking sparrows and other small birds so they aren’t easy to spot. When they aren’t in flight they’re perched high in the treetops and thinking about their next meal. So keep an eye out near forest edges and on low perches in open grasslands.
- Scientific name: Falco rusticolus
- Length: 18.9 – 25.5 in
- Weight: 28.2 – 74.1 oz
- Wingspan: 48.4 in
These cold-weather falcons breed around the Arctic circle, then move further south into Canada for the winter. In Alaska, they remain year-round in nearly all parts of the state, including the Aleutian Islands.
They can come in two distinct color morphs, white and gray. The white morph, pictured above, can look a bit like a snowy owl with white plumage flecked with black. Gray morphs have dark backs and heads, either solid or with white banding.
Ptarmigan, a medium sized game bird, makes up a lot of their diet. They also eat other medium sized birds including grouse, gulls, jaegers, auks, owls, snow buntings, terns, lapland longspurs, ravens and pheasants.
But birds aren’t the only thing they eat. Mammals such as hares, squirrels, fox and lemmings are also on the menu. In the breeding season, they have been known to hide extra food behind vegetation near the nest site.
It is believed that Gyrfalcons mate for life. They nest on cliffs or reuse the nests of ravens and eagles.
4. Peregrine Falcon
- Scientific name: Falco peregrinus
- Length: 14.2-19.3 in
- Weight: 18.7-56.4 oz
- Wingspan: 39.4-43.3 in
Most Peregrines in the U.S. migrate far north to arctic regions of Canada and even Greenland each year to breed. This includes Alaska, especially the northern half of the state. Their name, “peregrine” means wanderer / pilgrim.
This hints at their widespread nature, being found on early every continent world wide. Many that nest in Alaska and other areas of the Arctic migrate all the way down to South America to spend the winter, traveling 15,000 miles per year!
Males and females look the same. These crow-sized falcons have a dark back and head, with a light chest and streaked underparts. They have a bright yellow coloring on their legs, around their eye and at the base of their beak.
Peregrines are not only the fastest bird, but also the fastest animals on the planet reaching speeds of well over 200 mph when diving for prey. Their prey is mainly birds, almost any species is on the menu. In urban settings, pigeons can be a large part of their diet. They also eat bats and rodents.
These falcons nest on cliff faces, even incredibly steep ones like those found in the Grand Canyon. They will also sometimes use abandoned eagle, owl or red-tailed hawk nests if there aren’t any cliffs available.
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