Falcons are some of the world’s most adaptable & skilled predators. What exactly is a falcon? These birds of prey are often confused with similar predatory birds such as hawks. ‘Falcons’ include any bird in the genus Falco, even birds without ‘falcon’ in their name such as hobbies and kestrels.
Falcons have long, slender wings that aid them in speedy pursuits after their prey – the Peregrine Falcon is especially known for this skill.
The Peregrine Falcon is not only the world’s fastest bird, but the world’s fastest animal altogether – this predator is skilled on the wing and can reach incredible speeds of 300 km/186 mph.
Some are surprised to find that North Carolina is home to a diverse array of habitats & animals that dwell in them. North Carolina is home to many rare & highly specialized animals, including the last wild population of critically endangered Red Wolves.
The avian occupants of North Carolina are just as interesting. North Carolina’s varying environments, from cities to marshes to farmland, provide a home for three falcon species among the state’s resident birds of prey.
This guide provides a look at each of NC’s falcon species & how to find them.
1. Peregrine Falcon
- Scientific name: Falco peregrinus
- Length: 34 to 58 cm (13–23 in)
- Weight: 330 to 1,000 g (12–35 oz) for males, 700 to 1,500 g (25–53 oz) for larger females
- Wingspan: 74 to 120 cm (29–47 in)
- Lifespan: 8-15 years
- Conservation Status: Least Concern
The Peregrine Falcon, also known as simply the Peregrine, is one of North America’s most beloved birds of prey. This handsome bird is beloved by many for their agility and incredible speeds.
This bird is most often sighted hunting at times of low light (dawn and dusk). However, they can also hunt nocturnally; this behavior appears to be most common in cities, where increased light at night provides more visibility to the already sharp-sighted peregrine.
These birds are useful to keep around farms or other property where rodents are common.
Although this falcon is only the size of an average crow, they are talented hunters. They prefer to feed on medium-sized birds, but they also commonly consume rodents, small reptiles, and other prey. Their size doesn’t stop them from preying on large animals – they have been recorded occasionally preying on other falcons.
The Peregrine Falcon is common in the hobby of falconry, or keeping birds of prey for hunting or other uses. Often, when used for falconry, the bird is raised from a chick and then released to the wild as an adult.
While there are few long-term studies of falconry, many believe that falconry is beneficial to species such as the peregrine. Many birds of prey die within their first year in the wild, and many falconry enthusiasts believe that teaching a bird to hunt in the care of a keeper, then releasing them when they’ve developed their skills, can provide them a better chance at success in adulthood.
2. American Kestrel
- Scientific name: Falco sparverius
- Length: 22 to 31 cm (8.7 to 12.2 in)
- Weight: the larger female ranges 86–165 g (3.0–5.8 oz); smaller males are 80–143 g (2.8–5.0 oz)
- Wingspan: 51–61 cm (20–24 in)
- Lifespan: 5-10 years
- Conservation Status: Least Concern
The American Kestrel is both North America’s smallest resident falcon species & the most plentiful. Preferring open fields but adaptable to just about any habitat, the American Kestrel may be small, but they’re powerful.
Females are somewhat duller in coloration than the male of this species, yet they are also noticeably larger. Both sexes exhibit colorful rufous plumage along with a blue-gray cap.
The American Kestrel most often hunts as an ambush predator. This means that they prefer to conserve energy by sitting and waiting for prey to cross their paths, rather than actively searching them out.
This small falcon may only average the size of a typical Blue Jay, but they’re still a fierce predator, feeding on everything from grasshoppers to mice. This falcon also frequently preys on sparrows and other similarly sized birds, earning them the common title of sparrowhawk, especially in the Southern United States.
This kestrel species displays two small black markings on either side of their head, near the nape of their neck.
It’s believed that these distinguished marks actually serve the purpose of acting as false eyes, deterring larger predators like their competition, the Peregrine Falcon.
- Scientific name: Falco columbarius
- Length: 24–33 cm (9.4–13.0 in)
- Weight: 165 g (5.8 oz) – 300 g (10.6 oz)
- Wingspan: 18.2–23.8 cm (7.2–9.4 in)
- Lifespan: 7-12 years
- Conservation Status: Least Concern
This bold bird of prey is highly regarded as a trainable, intelligent falconry bird along with being the subject of many fables.
The Merlin was often formerly known as the pigeon hawk, but their diverse diets range from birds like ptarmigans to tiny amphibians. Despite their prey’s potential to be quite hefty, the Merlin rarely weighs more than the average pigeon.
Some birds are reported to experience respiratory & cardiac distress upon witnessing a merlin, even if they experience no physical harm.
These birds are often monogamous only through a single breeding season, but there are exceptions.
Merlin nests commonly contain 4-5 eggs per clutch. Baby Merlins remain dependent on their parents for up to four weeks after fledging the nest. However, many Merlins do not survive their first year of life.
During years where merlins struggle due to factors such as low amounts of prey, it’s not uncommon for merlins to have a survival rate so low that only one-third of chicks reach adulthood.
Although the Merlin is currently considered ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN, their populations are steadily decreasing throughout most of their range. Merlins and similar birds like other falcons are impacted by many environmental factors such as climate change, loss of habitat, and ingesting rodenticide.
Where To See North Carolina’s Falcons
While some people seem to have the good luck of spotting birds of prey easily, there’s many ways to increase your chances of a falcon sighting.
First, keep in mind that these species are often good at camouflage; investing in quality birdwatching equipment might increase your ability to easily pick out a falcon blending in against their perch.
Not sure where to start?
Many North Carolina state parks have safe trails designed for optimal viewing of wildlife, additionally they usually have a guide to the species present at each park, so you can know what you’re looking for.
Additionally, local Audubon groups usually have their own chapters, in addition to leading guided tours. If you’re new to birdwatching, you may want to attend a guided tour for a little extra help.
Tours are led by experienced birdwatchers, so they’re more likely to spot birds that newcomers to birdwatching might not notice. If you’re looking for a bird that’s uncommon in your area (for example, some falcons are city-dwellers, but they might not be easy to find) a guided tour is an especially good idea.
Invest in a good pair of binoculars. These don’t have to be expensive – many second-hand or thrift stores carry used binoculars, which can help you get started with a great brand rather than the cheapest options available.
Additionally, some libraries or birdwatching organizations will loan out or rent binoculars for a low cost. If you’re just visiting NC and don’t want to pack birdwatching gear for the trip, this could be a good option for you. Even a beginner’s set of binoculars can be a huge improvement to your birdwatching experience.
Want to encourage falcons to take up residence in your own neighborhood? There’s several ways to encourage falcon populations to grow in your area. For one, don’t use rodenticides.
While it’s understandable that most of us don’t want mice or rats in our homes, rodenticide is not only a very inhumane method of pest control, it negatively impacts many predatory species.
Birds of prey like falcons cannot discern from rodents who have consumed rodenticide and those who haven’t. Predatory species who eat rodents who have yet to pass from poisoned food will become poisoned as well. As it is, falcons are natural pest control, and poisoning birds of prey in your area will only increase rodent numbers.
Falcons also tend to prefer the natural world in comparison to heavily developed environments. You can make falcons feel at home by leaving out brush piles where small rodents can gather, leaving decaying or fallen trees as long as they aren’t unsafe, and prioritizing native plants’ presence on your property.
Allow grasses to grow long if you can; while you may have to deal with an increase of unwanted bugs, such as ticks, on your property, you’ll also see the presence of other wild creatures surge! You can also opt to make your yard even more bird-friendly by replacing lawn with low-growing groundcover, especially those that produce seeds or berries. This can lower your water usage as well.
Don’t let your cats roam outdoors on your property if you want to attract wildlife. While cats rarely pose a threat to a healthy adult falcon, falcons won’t opt to nest near predators of their chicks.
Cats Additionally, outdoor cats kill billions of birds annually; you can massively decrease your negative impact on the birds in your neighborhood by making the small change to keep your cat indoors, or only allow them outdoors in a catio or other supervised environment.
Large outdoor cat populations impact larger birds like falcons by removing their natural prey sources, which can lead to falcons heading elsewhere in search of food.
It’s uncommon for falcons to use nest boxes, but you can try to attract them to your property. Leave up dead or decaying trees with hollows that can be used for shelter, as long as there’s no danger of the tree falling.
Additionally, providing sources of water can encourage falcons to not only bathe and drink, but visit the water in hopes of catching a meal.
Don’t provide food to falcons, whether it’s meat intended for humans or frozen prey intended for pets like snakes; this food is often not nutritionally complete for the birds.
If it is accepted by the bird, it could make them sick, and/or trustworthy of humans; encouraging falcons to be close to humans is often detrimental to them.
Want to get hands-on experience with falcons? It’s possible to keep a falcon for yourself through the hobby of falconry, but this practice takes years to master and has legal requirements in most states.
However, you don’t always have to own your own falcon just to feel connected to these magnificent birds.
Many raptor rehabilitation centers offer volunteer or internship opportunities. You may not be able to hold or touch a raptor, to manage their stress levels and your safety, but you can still see the impact you make on an individual bird’s life.
North Carolina is home to a diverse variety of habitats, and unique species ranging from the falcons mentioned here to endangered species like the Red Wolf and the Bog Turtle.
With so many opportunities for a once in a lifetime sighting, any nature lover is sure to find something to appreciate when visiting North Carolina.
Skilled predators such as falcons can be easy to overlook in day to day life. They’re so adept at blending in with their environments that it can be easy to pass them by, especially in the car.
Learning identifying features of falcons & the habitats they prefer gives you a better chance at spotting a falcon in the wild without even going looking for one.
Falcons serve an important purpose in North Carolina’s ecosystem. While falcons can be fascinating to learn about and observe , they’re also important to the health of their environments.
Falcons feed on pests that can damage your home, like common mice and rats. They also keep other species’ numbers in balance, preventing a surge in numbers of any one species.
Falcons are crucial to the ecosystems they inhabit, and encouraging conservation for these big-in-personality predators leads towards a healthy ecosystem for all its inhabitants.