In this article, we’ll discuss the species of falcons in Florida. Hopefully you will gain insight to identifying them and learn some fun facts! (Don’t worry, there won’t be any crossbred birds here.)
Falcons are recognized by their pointed wings, strong chests, and hooked bills. The term “falcon” comes from the word “falcate”, meaning sickle-shaped, which describes their pointed wing silhouettes. They are excellent fliers and predators, making them a formidable bird of prey.
Because of their speed and excellent predation skills, falcons have long since been used by humans for hunting, thus the birth of the term and sport, falconry. They were historically used by royalty, and even today are still very expensive, costing thousands of dollars. There is much crossbreeding in the falconry world, which makes it difficult to identify escaped birds.
The 3 species of falcons in Florida
Falcons are often thought to be related to other birds of prey, such as hawks, but recent genetic studies show that they share a very close relation to parrots, and both falcons and parrots share a common ancestor with songbirds! Taxonomy and evolution is a weird world, isn’t it?
Despite their relation to songbirds, falcons often eat them by taking them in flight. They pursue them from behind, sometimes forcing them way up into the sky to tire them out, and then diving down on the weary bird. Their wicked fast speeds are nearly impossible to outfly. Most falcons hunt early in the morning and late in the evenings—the same times as the morning and evening choruses of songbirds and the hours they are most active.
Ok, enough chit-chat… let’s take a look at the 3 types of falcons you’ll find in the state of Florida!
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
American Kestrels—the smallest falcon in North America—also happen to be the most colorful. Males have grey-blue wings and a rusty orange back with black barring. The tail is also rusty orange with black tips. The pale belly is washed with orange and pleasantly spotted with small, black polka dots.
Females are rusty orange above with black barring on the wings and tail. Their pale bellies lack the spots characteristic of the males, and instead have orange streaking. Both males and females have a grey cap (the males have a little orange patch on top of the grey) and black stripes on the sides of their face. The stripes are often referred to as a “mustache” and “sideburns” due to their placement.
These birds can be seen perching on telephone wires and fence posts when in the country, keeping a keen eye out for insects, small mammals, and reptiles to snatch up. They also have to be sure to keep an eye out for predators, as they are often meals for larger birds of prey, such as hawks, owls, and crows, as well as snakes.
American Kestrels can be found year-round in the majority of Florida. The southern tip of the state also has migrants in the wintering season. Because females migrate first, they typically take up all the open habitat and leave the males to use more wooded areas. These birds are cavity dwellers, and will nest in bird boxes if they are up in time.
Scientific name: Falco columbarius
Length: 9.4 – 11.8 in
Weight: 5.6 – 8.5 oz
Wingspan: 20.9 – 26.8 in
Merlin are similar to the American Kestrel, but are slightly larger and more compact, with shorter tails and wider wings.
Merlins have three color variations across the country and the populations that winter in Florida have what’s known as the “taiga” variation.
The “taiga” birds are the smallest of the variations and are dark and streaky. Males have blue-grey wings and backs. The tail is also blue grey with heavy black bars. Their bellies are pale with brown streaking. Females are slaty brown overall with dark streaking on a pale belly. They also have dark and buffy bars on the tail.
The whole state of Florida is home to wintering migrants. While here, they are very common in coastal areas, but can also be found in grasslands and open forests. These speedy birds can be seen shooting through the air chasing after a songbird or shorebird, or perched in the treetops. Unless they are perching, be sure to look fast, as Merlin are quick and cover a lot of ground quickly.
Medieval falconers used to call Merlin “ladyhawks” as European noblewomen used them when hunting Sky Larks. These sporty birds were used by Catherine the Great and Mary Queen of Scots. Even today, Merlin are used by falconers for hunting variably sized birds, from small and sparrow-sized to large and dove-sized.
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
Peregrines have dark, slate colored backs and white underparts with barring on the belly. Their serious faces have yellow eyes, dark moustaches and white cheek patches. Their legs are heavily feathered and at the end, a large hind talon is present that’s strong enough to kill prey on contact when using the force of its dive.
These large falcons, formerly known as the “Duck Hawk” are fierce and wicked fast. Their wings extend almost to the end of their tail and power them through the air to snatch birds straight out of the sky. One has been recorded to reach a speed of 247 miles per hour!
Peregrines spend the winter months in Florida and are prevalent along shores and in cities. In the 1970’s they were placed on the Endangered Species List due to population decline from pesticides. During this time, it was a joy to even see one in a day. Now, numbers are soaring upward; a site in the Florida Keys now records roughly 350 sightings per day some days.
Their diet consists mostly of birds, which they catch in flight. In North America, they have been documented eating 450 species of birds. Since they are present on every continent except Antarctica, this number jumps to roughly 2000 bird species as prey. They aren’t put off by size, either. They have been observed preying on large birds (like a Sandhill Crane) and small birds (like a hummingbird). They also munch on bats and fish.