Caracaras and falcons (Falconidae)
Raptors such as hawks, vultures, and falcons are three of the five bird families of the taxonomic order FALCONIFORMES (pronounced fal-kon-ih-FOR-meez). It should be noted that these birds are alternately classified in an order named ACCIPITRIFORMES (pronounced ak-sip-it-ruh-FOR-meez) by some ornithological authorities.
A family found on all continents except for Antarctica, the Falconidae (pronounced fal-KON-ih-dee) is composed of sixty-five species of falcons in eleven genera.
In North America, nineteen species of caracaras and falcons in six genera have occurred including the extinct Guadalupe Caracara. The vulture-like caracaras, the Peregrine Falcon, and the American Kestrel are all members of this family.
Caracaras and falcons are known for their rapid flight and aggressive, predatory behavior. The Peregrine Falcon is well known for its ability to catch other birds in flight with the fastest dives recorded for any bird (over one hundred seventy-five miles per hour).
Caracaras and falcons are medium to large birds with stocky heads and long tails. All have strong feet with sharp talons, and sharp, hooked beaks for tearing up prey items. Those of the Falco genus (such as the Peregrine Falcon and Merlin) have a notch on the upper mandible that is used for cutting the spinal cord of the birds they capture. Members of the Falco genus also have long, pointed wings while the caracaras have long, rather broad wings, and the forest-falcons short, broad wings.
The Falconidae have plumages colored in gray, brown, and black, often with handsome barred patterns on the underparts. Immature birds tend to have more streaks and browner plumages than adults, and Falco species show black markings on the face and head that resemble a hood or “sideburns”. One Falco species, the American Kestrel, is fairly colorful with reddish and gray plumage, while the Gyrfalcon comes in three color morphs; blackish, gray, and white. Other colors are limited to yellow on the ceres and legs of adult birds, and the reddish in the face of the Crested Caracara.
In North America, Caracaras and falcons are found from the high arctic to the hot and humid woodlands of southern Texas. Most species are birds of open habitats such as grasslands and coastal areas, the exception being the woodland dwelling Collared Forest-Falcon. In addition to occurring in open areas that serve as its natural habitat, the Peregrine Falcon also makes its home in cities, nesting on tall buildings instead of their ancestral cliffs.
The Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, and American Kestrel are long distance migrants to Central and South America, with other falcons being short distance migrants or permanent residents.
In North America, falcons form pairs during the breeding season but are solitary at other times. Aside from the scavenging, opportunistic caracaras, larger falcons forage on flying birds by catching them in rapid flight, sometimes diving at a bird to rake it with outstretched talons. The Gyrfalcons, the Prairie Falcon, and the American Kestrel also take other prey items from the ground, the kestrel often searching for mice, voles, and even insects by hovering in place. The Collared Forest Falcon dashes after a variety of prey items found amidst the forest canopy.
Although the Peregrine Falcon became highly endangered and was killed off in many areas by DDT during the twentieth century, after the chemical was banned, its populations slowly recovered with reintroduction programs and the bird is no longer threatened.
Renowned for their ability in catching prey, falcons have been used for hunting by various cultures for hundreds of years. A practice often limited to royalty in Europe, only kings were allowed to hunt with the Gyrfalcon. Some research data has shown that kestrels are able to locate rodents on the ground by being able to see the ultraviolet light reflected in the trails of urine they leave as they scurry through fields.