Falcons are birds of prey, but separate from eagles, kites, and hawks. Unlike these other raptors, falcons kill their prey with their beaks rather than their talons. They are also usually faster, and have longer and more slender wings compared to hawks. There are 7 species of falcons that regularly visit the United States, but in this article we will look at the 5 species of falcons in Washington state.
5 Falcons in Washington State
The 5 species of falcons most commonly found in Washington are the American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Prairie Falcon and Gyrfalcon.
Let’s take a look at 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 remains throughout Washington year-round, except along the coast where they may only hang around during winter.
- Scientific name: Falco columbarius
- Length: 9.4-11.8 in
- Weight: 5.6-8.5 oz
- Wingspan: 20.9-26.8 in
Merlins are another small falcon found in Washington. These migratory falcons move between their breeding grounds in Canada and winter grounds in the U.S. and further south. However, Washington is one of the few spots where they remain year-round.
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.
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
Most Peregrines in the U.S. migrate far north to arctic regions of Canada and even Greenland each year to breed. Their name, “peregrine” means wanderer / pilgrim. This hints at their widespread nature, being found on early every continent world wide.
In Washington, the best time to see them is during spring or fall migration as they pass through the state. In some areas along the coast and in central Washington, they may remain year-round.
Due to pesticide poisoning, populations in eastern North America were almost totally wiped out by the middle of the 20th century. Thankfully, they have made a strong comeback.
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.
4. Prairie Falcon
- Scientific name: Falco mexicanus
- Length: 14.6-18.5 in
- Weight: 14.8-38.8 oz
- Wingspan: 35.4-44.5 in
The prairie falcon prefers 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 the western half of the U.S. year-round, including most of Washington. However in the western third of the state, they tend to just be winter residents.
While they do some soaring, they often fly low over open land. Because water can be hard to find in their preferred habitat of grassland or tundra, they often take dust baths.
In the summer, small mammals are on the menu, especially squirrels. In the winter, their diet shifts to medium sized birds including horned larks and western meadowlarks.
Their brown colors do make them somewhat camouflaged and difficult to spot sometimes. They are brown above with light colored underparts barred with brown. In flight, you can see a dark spot in the “armpit” of their wing. They have a brown “mustache”, and a white eyebrow stripe.
The prairie falcon doesn’t build much of a nest. They often look for natural crevices and depressions, or areas along a cliff with a protective overhang. A breeding pair will patrol their territory, and fight any intruding Peregrin Falcons.
- 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. Typically Gyrfalcons only come south into a few of the northern U.S. states. This includes Washington, although they would still be considered a rare sighting here.
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.
In their breeding range they rely mainly on ptarmigan and seabirds for food. During the winter if they venture into the U.S. they look for areas of abundant food, such as coasts, grasslands and river valleys.
It is believed that Gyrfalcons mate for life. They nest on cliffs or reuse the nests of ravens and eagles.
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Melanie is an environmental scientist, birdwatcher, and amateur photographer. She’s been a birding hobbyist for years and loves feeding and learning about birds of all types. Over the years, Melanie has identified more than 250 bird species, with sightings of the Atlantic Puffin, Hawaiian Goose, and Arctic Tern among her most cherished.