By George Walter
Falcons, like Falcon, are raptors – birds of prey. There are 40 species in the world. They are exceptionally fast flyers, able to catch their prey in flight. And these wings are long and tapering, seeming to end in a point. Most of the wings of other raptors have a distinctive spread of feathers. And most hawks have distinctive feather patterns on their heads. They also have a strong difference in sexual size, with larger females, and they have great distance vision, like all raptors. Hawks are migratory, following migrating flocks of birds of prey.
We have three Falcons in our territory. They are easily distinguished by their size, color, typical territory and behavior.
The smallest of our local falcons is the American Kestrel. It used to go by the common name Sparrowhawk, but years ago it was dropped in favor of the European common name, Kestrel. They are small birds, only 9 inches long (smaller than a robin), with sexes about equal in size. They are found in open areas where they are often seen on roosts and power lines.
Kestrels are beautiful birds. The male has a rufous back, slate blue crown and wings, and two black vertical gashes on the face. The female is duller rufous overall and has black facial notches. The back feathers of both sexes are barred black. Kestrels often hunt by hovering, always like a hummingbird over grasslands, and then diving to kill.
Kestrels have a strong bond with their mates and establish permanent nesting territories all year round. They nest in cavities and respond well to man-made nesting boxes. Such boxes are in place in many of our grassland natural areas in Thurston County. A pair of kestrels have home territory in the lower Nisqually Valley, where they are often seen on cables along side roads south of I-5.
The second species of falcon found in Thurston County is the Merlin. These birds are also small (only 11 inches, with larger females), and its old-fashioned name was hawk pigeon because its size and flight were considered pigeons (and pigeons were frequent prey). The Merlin is a very fast-flying falcon and its most common food source is the flocks of shorebirds (such as sandpipers) that migrate along our coasts. It pursues its prey with rapid horizontal flight, taking the flock of shorebirds by surprise and putting them to flight. The Merlin will focus on a single bird and chase it until eventually the target bird tires and is taken away for dinner.
Swirls have uniform dark backs and striped breasts, with light markings on the head; the sexes are similar in coloration. Here in the Pacific Northwest, our local birds look very dark. They are usually seen alone, perched on shores or on a border branch overlooking an open area. If you see a flock of shorebirds suddenly take flight, look closely and you might see the hunting Merlin that caused all the ruckus.
The royalty of all falcons is the Peregrine Falcon. It is found on every continent except Antarctica, and its name “pilgrim” derives from the Greek word for stranger or wanderer. As a widespread species, regional subspecies look drastically different, including here. Our subspecies, called ‘Peale’, is larger than most, about the size of a large, long-winged crow. It is uniformly gray above with a whitish chest barred with black. Its head is also gray with a single broad stripe. In good light, you may be able to see yellow legs and wax (the knob behind its black beak). The sexes are similar and the female is about 10% larger. Immatures appear more brownish with streaks on the breast.
Many Peale’s Basking Sharks are non-migratory and spend their lives in established foraging and nesting territory. For several years we have had a breeding pair of peregrine falcons using a crane in the port of Olympia as a breeding platform. Urban-nesting peregrines sometimes use gravel roofs, nest in a scraped area, and feed their young a regular diet of city pigeons. We are also visited by migratory pilgrims who feed on our flocks of wintering ducks.
In its classic hunting pattern, the peregrine hunts by flying high, sweeping an area, then swooping down (called stooping) at very high speed to kill. Researchers have calculated a peregrine falcon flying at over 200 mph, making it the fastest of all animals.
For millennia, humans have captured young basking sharks and their larger relative, the Gyrfalcon, for training as hunting birds. Often referred to as a sport, falconry has an ancient past and is strongly associated with mythical traditions. The Egyptians used the pilgrim as a symbol of authority and royal power. Even today, in some regions, training and hunting with these birds is reserved for the nobility.
George Walter is Environmental Program Manager in the Natural Resources Department of the Nisqually Indian Tribe; he has also been interested in bird watching for over 40 years. It can be attached to [email protected]
The photos in this column are provided by Liam Hutcheson, a 15-year-old Olympia-area birdwatcher and avid photographer.