Fascinating Falcons

Falcons, worshipped as the "Lofty Ones," appeared in the writings, paintings, and sculptures of the early Egyptians and Persians some 3,000 years ago. References to the grace and power of falcons appeared during the times of Aristotle and Marco Polo. During the Middle Ages, owning falcons, particularly peregrine falcons, became a symbol of power. Peregrines were sought by kings and other nobility as valuable gifts.

Falcons are swift birds of prey found throughout the world, except for a few oceanic islands and Antarctica. The 58 species of the falcon family range in size from the 6.5-inch Pygmy Falcon of South America to the 25-inch Gyrfalcon of the Arctic tundra. The smallest North American falcon is the 9 to 12-inch American Kestrel, and the rarest North American falcon is the Aplamado Falcon. Members of the falcon family have a conspicuous notched bill which is used to break the necks of their prey. Falcons have excellent eyesight. Experiments in Germany confirmed that Peregrine Falcons can recognize sitting doves from a distance up to 1.5 miles.

Peregrine Falcon

With high-speed adaptations such as bullet-like heads, short necks, broad shoulders, and long, pointed wings, falcons are among the fastest birds in the world. Peregrines are considered the fastest falcons; they are able to cruise in level flight at 50-60 miles an hour and have been clocked at more than 200 miles per hour in their dives after prey.

The peregrine falcon's speed and grace make it one of the most interesting falcons to watch or study. Its hunting style is Peregrine Falcon spectacular. When this regal-looking falcon spots its prey, usually smaller birds such as swifts, flickers, robins, jays, crows, and pigeons, it seems to pause in midair, turns downward with a few rapid wing beats, and dives almost too quickly for the eye to follow. Moving at incredible speed, the peregrine usually strikes its prey with clenched foot, knocking its prey out of the air and using the notched beak to kill it on the ground. Usually peregrines are successful in killing their prey only ten to 40 percent of the time. Consequently, they hunt over a wide area, up to 18 miles from their nest.

Partly because they are so fascinating, peregrine falcons have become one of the bestknown symbols in humanity's efforts to save endangered species. Since the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, peregrines have been the subject of intensive attention to keep them from sliding over the brink into extinction. An important step in recovery efforts was successful propagation of falcons in captivity and reintroduction back to the wild. The peregrine still faces serious threats to its survival. These threats include the continued use in Central and South America of dangerous pesticides such as DDT, and the loss of its wintering habitat.

Watch the peregrines in north Omaha (seasonal)

American Kestrel

The American Kestrel is Iowa's smallest falcon. It is abundant in agricultural areas characterized by scattered woodlots and trees, shelterbelts, meadows, highway rights-of-way, pastures, and hay fields. This species is valuable because of the large numbers of rodents and insects it eats. Kestrels are frequently seen sitting on powerlines along highways or hovering above grassy roadside ditches in search of their prey. An adult kestrel is about the size of a grackle.

The State of Iowa has established a program in which kestrel nest boxes are strapped with steel bands to the backs of information signs along Interstate Highway 35. The boxes are predator-proof because the steel posts supporting the signs can't be climbed by cats or raccoons. The grassy interstate provides good habitat for kestrels. In southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, approximately 40 to 60 percent of all kestrel boxes placed by the Iowa and Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources are used by kestrels.

Nest boxes may be placed in orchards or relatively open country on a tree or a free-standing post that is ten to 30 feet high. The tree or post should have a sheet of tin or aluminum nailed or stapled under the box to prevent squirrels from using the box. The nest hole should be three inches in diameter and preferably face south or east. About two to three inches of wood chips should be placed in the bottom of the box. Grassy habitat should be nearby to provide hunting habitat for the kestrels. Kestrel boxes should be spaced one-half mile from each other. Kestrel boxes should be installed by the first of February to attract the first migrants returning from their wintering grounds.

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