Falcons in Michigan

Falcons in Michigan

Michigan is home to a diverse range of avian species, including several falcons. These birds of prey are renowned for their speed, agility, and hunting prowess, making them a fascinating subject of study for bird enthusiasts and wildlife lovers alike.

Falcons are known for their streamlined bodies, sharp talons, and hooked beaks, which allow them to capture and kill their prey in mid-air in spectacular fashion. They are also remarkable flyers, capable of reaching speeds of up to 200 miles per hour during a dive, with the Peregrine Falcon having the speed record of any bird in the world.

This article will explore the different falcon species found in Michigan, their habitat preferences, hunting strategies, and conservation status. Whether you are a seasoned birder or simply curious about these magnificent birds, this guide will provide a comprehensive overview of falcons in Michigan.

1. Peregrine Falcon

  • Scientific name: Falco peregrinus
  • Life span: 8-15 years
  • Size: 14-19 inches (36-48 cm)
  • Weight: 1.1-3.3 pounds (500-1500 grams)
  • Wingspan: 3-4 feet (90-120 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Peregrine Falcon is a majestic and powerful bird of prey known for its incredible speed and aerial hunting abilities. With a range that spans all continents except Antarctica, the Peregrine Falcon is one of the most widely distributed bird species in the world.

In North America, the Peregrine Falcon can be found in a variety of habitats, from coastal cliffs to urban skyscrapers.

The Peregrine Falcon is known for its distinctive physical features, including its sleek, blue-gray feathers and distinctive black “mustache” markings on its face. Adult males and females have similar appearance, with females typically being larger in size.

Close-up of a peregrine falcon.


During the breeding season, which typically occurs in the spring, the male Peregrine Falcon will perform aerial displays to attract a mate.

These displays involve high-speed chases, steep dives, and acrobatic maneuvers, which demonstrate the male’s strength, agility, and prowess as a hunter. If a female is interested, she will join the male in these aerial displays, and the two birds will fly in unison, circling and diving together.

Peregrine Falcons have fascinating nesting habits. They are well known for their preference for cliff nesting, and can often be found perched on steep cliffs or rocky outcroppings.

Their nests, commonly referred to as “scrapes,” are typically constructed from a variety of materials such as gravel, dirt, and other debris, and are often lined with softer materials like feathers, grass, or moss.

Peregrine Falcons are also known for their monogamous nature, usually mating for life. They often return to the same nesting site year after year, with both partners working collaboratively to maintain and protect the nest.

Once a pair has bonded, they will engage in a variety of courtship behaviors, including mutual preening, feeding each other, and calling to one another. The male will also bring food to the female, often presenting it to her mid-air.

Their diet mainly includes medium-sized birds such as doves, pigeons, and waterfowl, but they can also take larger prey like ducks, grouse, and even small mammals such as bats. Peregrine Falcons prefer hunting during the day, and their remarkable eyesight enables them to spot potential prey from afar.

When hunting, Peregrine Falcons typically snatch their prey mid-air, striking with their sharp talons, and delivering a swift bite to the neck to kill it. Alternatively, they may pursue prey horizontally, catching them after a brief chase.

The Peregrine Falcon, a bird of prey that once thrived across much of the globe, almost disappeared from many regions by the mid-20th century due to the use of harmful pesticides like DDT.

These chemicals led to a decline in fertility and chick survival rates by thinning the eggshells. This ultimately led to the Peregrine Falcon being listed as an endangered species in many parts of the world.

In the 1970s, a focused conservation effort, including the prohibition of DDT, helped to turn around the Peregrine Falcon’s decline. To reintroduce the species to areas where it had vanished, captive breeding programs were created.

Falcons were raised in captivity and then released into the wild, where they were closely monitored to ensure their safety.

Peregrine Falcon

Thanks to these efforts, the Peregrine Falcon has made an impressive comeback in many parts of the world, and it has been removed from the endangered species list in numerous countries, including the United States and Canada.

However, the bird still faces threats such as habitat loss and disturbance, and some populations remain at risk. Conservation efforts are still underway to ensure the continued revival and existence of the Peregrine Falcon.

2. American Kestrel

  • Scientific name: Falco sparverius
  • Life span: 5-10 years
  • Size: 8-12 inches (20-30 cm)
  • Weight: 2.8-5.8 ounces (80-164 grams)
  • Wingspan: 20-24 inches (51-61 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern

The American Kestrel is a small but fierce bird of prey known for its impressive hunting skills and stunning appearance. Widely distributed throughout North America, this bird can be found in a variety of habitats, from open grasslands to urban areas, and is native to Michigan.

The American Kestrel has a striking plumage, which consists of a rust-colored back and tail, blue-gray wings, and a white and black face pattern. Males and females have similar markings, but females are typically larger in size. Despite its small stature, the American Kestrel is a skilled hunter, feeding primarily on insects, small rodents, and other small animals.

An American Kestrel diving for prey.


In Michigan, the American Kestrel is a solitary bird during the non-breeding season. However, during the breeding season, which typically occurs from late March to mid-June, American Kestrels form monogamous pairs and engage in complex courtship behaviors.

The male American Kestrel will search for a suitable nesting site and then begin performing aerial displays to attract a mate. These displays include high-speed chases, steep dives, and other acrobatic maneuvers that demonstrate the male’s strength, agility, and hunting skills.

Once a pair has formed, the female will select a nesting site, usually a natural cavity in a tree or man-made nest box. The male will then bring nesting materials to the site, such as twigs, grass, and feathers, which the female will use to construct the nest.

The American Kestrel is a small falcon species that feeds primarily on insects, small rodents, and birds. Its diet varies depending on the availability of prey in its habitat and the time of year.In the summer, the American Kestrel feeds mostly on insects, including grasshoppers, beetles, dragonflies, and cicadas.

It may also eat small reptiles and amphibians, such as lizards and frogs. During the fall and winter, the American Kestrel shifts its diet to include small birds, such as sparrows, finches, and other songbirds. It may also prey on small mammals, such as voles and mice.

The American Kestrel hunts from a perch, scanning the surrounding area for prey. When it spots a potential meal, it will hover in the air, flapping its wings rapidly to maintain its position, before diving down to capture its prey with its sharp talons.

The American Kestrel is listed as a species of conservation concern in North America, with populations declining across much of its range.

American Kestrel

The reasons for the decline are not entirely clear, but it is likely due to a combination of factors, including habitat loss, pesticide use, and competition for nesting sites from invasive species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows. It is however classified as “Least Concern” on a global scale by IUCN.

In recent decades, the number of American Kestrels has declined by as much as 50% in some areas. This decline has led to conservation efforts aimed at protecting and restoring suitable habitats, as well as promoting the use of nest boxes to provide additional nesting sites for the birds.

3. Merlin

  • Scientific name: Falco columbarius
  • Life span: 5-10 years
  • Size: 9-11 inches (23-28 cm)
  • Weight: 5-7 ounces (140-198 grams)
  • Wingspan: 20-26 inches (51-66 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Merlin is a small but fierce bird of prey known for its agile flight and powerful hunting abilities. Widely distributed across the northern hemisphere, this bird can be found in a variety of habitats, from boreal forests to grasslands and coastal regions, and is native to Michigan.

The Merlin’s striking appearance includes dark blue-gray feathers on its back and wings, and a rusty-red colored breast and underparts. Males and females have similar markings, but females are typically larger in size.

Close-up picture of a Merlin


The Merlin breeds in the boreal forests regions of Michigan. During the breeding season, which typically begins in late April and early May, male Merlins perform courtship flights and vocalizations to attract females.

Once a pair has formed, they will engage in aerial displays and other behaviors to strengthen their bond. The Merlins typically mate for life and will return to the same nesting site each year to breed. Merlins nest in a variety of habitats, including forests, cliffs, and even abandoned buildings.

They often use abandoned crow or magpie nests as a base for their own nest, adding sticks and other materials to build it up to their liking. Merlins are aggressive defenders of their nest and will fiercely protect their young from predators and other threats.

After the chicks fledge, they will stay with their parents for several weeks, learning to hunt and fend for themselves before striking out on their own.

Merlins are small but fierce predators that feed primarily on other birds. In Michigan, their diet includes a variety of small songbirds, such as sparrows, finches, and warblers, as well as larger species like jays and woodpeckers.

They are also known to take advantage of seasonal opportunities, such as feeding on migrating shorebirds or dragonflies.

Merlins are adept hunters, using their speed and agility to pursue and capture prey on the wing. They are known for their high-speed chases and acrobatic maneuvers, often diving and twisting in mid-air to avoid obstacles and catch their prey.

Merlins are listed as a species of “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List, and their population in Michigan appears to be stable. However, the species has faced declines in other regions due to habitat loss, hunting, and other factors.

Merlin Bird

In the past, Merlins were often hunted for their feathers, which were used in the millinery trade to decorate women’s hats. This led to a significant decline in the species’ population throughout much of the 20th century.

However, with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, which protected migratory birds from hunting and other forms of exploitation, Merlin populations have rebounded in many areas.

4. Gyrfalcon

  • Scientific name: Falco rusticolus
  • Life span: 15-20 years
  • Size: 20-25 inches (51-64 cm)
  • Weight: 2-4 pounds (900-1800 grams)
  • Wingspan: 3-4 feet (90-120 cm)
  • Status: Least Concern

The Gyrfalcon is a magnificent bird of prey known for its impressive size and strength. Widely distributed across the Arctic and subarctic regions of North America, Europe, and Asia, this bird is a true symbol of the wild and untamed wilderness.

With a wingspan that can reach up to 5 feet, the Gyrfalcon is one of the largest falcons in the world. Its plumage can vary from pure white to dark gray or black, and its sharp, curved beak is perfectly designed for catching and killing prey.

The Gyrfalcon is one of the least understood falcons due to their shy behaviour and northern breeding grounds.

A Gyrfalcon with its white and dotted plumage


Gyrfalcons are rare winter visitors to Michigan and are known to nest in the Arctic tundra. During the breeding season, which typically begins in May, Gyrfalcons are monogamous and form pair bonds that can last for several years.

The pair will work together to select a nest site, which is usually located on a cliff or rocky outcropping and construct a scrape nest lined with feathers, grasses, and other materials.

Due to their remote breeding habitat and low population density, little is known about the specific nesting and mating behavior of Gyrfalcons.

However, as a top predator and indicator species, their presence in the state is an important sign of the health of the Arctic ecosystem and their protection is critical to maintaining biodiversity.

During their winter stay in Michigan, the Gyrfalcons are known to feed on a variety of bird species, including waterfowl, grouse, ptarmigan, and other birds of prey. They are also known to take advantage of wintering passerines, such as finches and sparrows.

When hunting birds, the Gyrfalcon typically uses a fast and powerful dive, known as a stoop, to catch its prey in mid-air. In addition to birds, the Gyrfalcon will also feed on small mammals such as voles and lemmings, which are abundant in their Arctic breeding grounds.

They have been known to follow lemming populations during their cyclic fluctuations, indicating their ability to adapt their diet to changing prey availability.

Due to their remote breeding habitat and limited winter range, population estimates are difficult to obtain, but the species is generally considered to be stable and they’re classified as “Least Concern” by IUCN.

In Michigan though, the Gyrfalcon is considered a threatened species, and populations are monitored closely by state and federal wildlife agencies.

Gyrfalcon

One of the main threats to the species in Michigan is habitat loss and degradation due to human activities, such as development and resource extraction. Climate change may also pose a threat to the Gyrfalcon, as it could alter the availability of prey species and impact breeding success.

Where to look for Falcons in Michigan

If you’re interested in spotting falcons in Michigan, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of a sighting. First, familiarize yourself with the habitat types that are preferred by different falcon species.

For example, American Kestrels tend to prefer open habitats such as grasslands and agricultural fields, while Peregrine Falcons can be found in urban areas as well as cliffs and other rocky habitats.

Once you know the types of birds and habitats to look for, consider visiting specific areas that are known to be good for falcon sightings. In Michigan, locations such as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and Tawas Point State Park are known for their resident Peregrine Falcon populations. Meanwhile, the grasslands and agricultural fields of central Michigan can be good places to spot American Kestrels.

If you’re new to birdwatching or just want some extra guidance, consider joining a guided tour or seeking out local birdwatching organizations.

They can provide expert guidance on where to look for falcons and other birds, as well as tips on how to identify different species and the trips are usually great fun with a lot of new learning experiences.

Finally, be sure to bring a good pair of binoculars and a field guide to help you identify any falcons you spot. With a little patience and perseverance, you may be rewarded with the sight of one of these magnificent birds of prey in the Michigan wilderness.

Conclusion

Falcons are remarkable birds of prey that possess a unique combination of strength, speed, and agility, which makes them formidable hunters and a joy to observe, both for old and new birdwatchers.

From the majestic Peregrine Falcon to the elusive Gyrfalcon, Michigan offers a diverse range of falcons that bird enthusiasts can observe and appreciate.

Despite the many challenges that these birds face, including habitat loss and human activities, the conservation efforts aimed at protecting falcons have yielded promising results. For example, the reintroduction of Peregrine Falcons and ongoing monitoring efforts have helped in restoring the populations of these magnificent birds in Michigan.

Observing and learning about falcons is not only an enjoyable experience but also provides an opportunity to appreciate the natural world and the efforts made to protect it. As such, we humans must continue to support the conservation efforts aimed at preserving the habitats and populations of these remarkable birds in Michigan and beyond.

Join the discussion