Texas is the second largest state in the United States and contains many of the most renowned birding destinations in the country. Located in the southeast and bordering Mexico, Texas comprises a variety of habitats from coastlines to cypress swamps and deserts – resulting in an enormous number of documented birds totalling over 660 species.
Top birding sites in the state and country are Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Big Bend National Park, High Island, Brazos Bend State Park, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, Lost Maples State Natural Area, Lake Tawakoni State Park, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Goose Island State Park, Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge and South Padre Island.
The state is home to many birds of prey, including the Falconidae. The Falconidae, like other birds of prey, have razor-sharp talons used to grip prey and sharp, hooked beaks used to kill and disembowel prey items. They are excellent hunters that pursue prey aerially or terrestrially. They possess outstanding eyesight and incredible speed, making them efficient hunters.
In the Falconidae family, many species have been described and split into further subtaxa, but those in the genus Falco are the true falcons. Nine types of falcons in Texas belonging to the Falconidae family have been documented. Of those, seven species belong to the Falco genus, one is a Caracara species, and the other is a Micrastur species.
The Collared Forest-falcon (Micrastur semitorquatus) has only been seen once in the state, and that was in 1994 when a bird was seen in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park right on the border with Mexico. This remains the only record of that species for the entire United States.
In terms of the Falco species, the Bat Falcon (Falco rufigularis) and Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) have only been seen within the state once each. The Bat Falcon was found in Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in December 2021. Once again, this constituted the first record of the species within the United States. The Gyrfalcon was seen in Lubbock but may be seen in the future during winter if individuals migrate too far south.
In the following text, we will take a look at the five true falcons of Texas that regularly occur in the state and where the best spots to find them are.
1. Aplomado Falcon
- Scientific name – Falco femoralis
- Lifespan – 8 years (average), 12 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 15 to 16.9 in (38 to 43 cm)
- Weight – 7.3 to 17.6 oz (208 to 500 g)
- Wingspan – 30 to 39.4 in (76 to 100 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Aplomado Falcon is a medium-sized, long-tailed, long-winged, colourful falcon with black and white stripes on its face. The underparts are tricoloured with a whitish to buffy-coloured chest, a thick dark breast band, and a rusty-coloured lower belly.
The back is dark brown or slate blue, and the tail is black and white. The underwings are heavily barred and dark. The call produced by this species is a kek.
The Aplomado Falcon nests in open grasslands and woodland areas close to marshland. This species utilises old stick nests built by crows, ravens, magpies, jays and other raptors. They can be aggressive – evicting birds from their nests to take them over.
The nest is usually found in Yucca plant species or trees. In some cases, they may nest on the crossbeams of utility poles or on the ground. They do not build their own nests.
Females of the species lay two to four eggs in a clutch. The whitish-coloured eggs with brown spots are incubated for 31 to 32 days. Once hatched, the hatchlings develop for 28 to 35 days before they fledge.
The Aplomado Falcon feeds on birds, insects, lizards and small mammals.
The Aplomado Falcon was a common species in the southwest United States, found in the dry grasslands of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before being extirpated in the 1930s. To help the populations recover, 1500 captive-bred individuals were released and started breeding in southern Texas during the 1980s.
It is now endangered and rare in the country and can only be seen in the south of Texas. They are uncommon throughout the rest of their distribution. The total breeding population is estimated to consist of 200,000 individuals, and about 100 are found in Texas. The Aplomado Falcon faces threats from pesticides, habitat destruction for farmland, overgrazing, and prairie dog eradication schemes.
Aplomado Falcons are resident all year round in the southeast and far west Trans-Pecos regions of Texas. They are found in grassland and desert habitats containing scattered Mesquite and Yucca species. In the rest of their range further south, they occur in savannas, woodland edges alongside grasslands, marshlands, and pastures containing scattered palms. This species is most easily seen within the Mustang Island State Park, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.
2. Prairie Falcon
- Scientific name – Falco mexicanus
- Lifespan – 3 years (average), 17 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 14.6 to 18.5 in (37 to 47 cm)
- Weight – 14.8 to 38.8 oz (420 to 1100 g)
- Wingspan – 35.4 to 44.5 in (90 to 113 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Prairie Falcon is a medium-large falcon with a long tail and long wings. Both sexes are similar in appearance – with brown upper parts, whitish underparts, and brown markings on the breast and belly.
A pale line is present above the eye, and a brown moustache is present on the face. The underwing is dark between the “armpit” and the “wrist”. The typical call made by this falcon is a kik-kik-kik.
The Prairie Falcon nests in open areas, on bluffs and on cliffs. The nest is a simple indentation made from the available debris found at the nesting site. In rare cases, this species uses abandoned stick nests made by eagles or corvids.
The nest is usually located in a crevice, on a cliff ledge, in a hole, or underneath an overhang on the side of a bluff. Occasionally, the nest is placed on buildings, trees, caves, or power line towers. The female lays between two and six eggs in a single clutch during the season. The eggs are brown-spotted russet or cream-coloured. The eggs are incubated for 29 to 39 days. The hatchlings grow for an additional 29 to 47 days in the nest before they get the courage to learn to fly.
Prairie Falcons feed on birds, small mammals and insects mainly. Bird prey includes doves, larks, shorebirds, and meadowlarks, while mammalian prey consists of ground squirrels and pikas.
The Prairie Falcon is a fairly common, widespread species with an estimated population size of 80,000 breeding individuals, which appears to be stable. This species is threatened by pesticides such as DDT, illegal hunting, habitat loss due to land conversion, wildfires, mining practices and human disturbance.
Prairie Falcons are mainly found on the west side of Texas, particularly in the panhandle. They are relatively common during winter but may be seen all year round. They occur in various habitats, including grassland, shrubland, alpine tundra, farmland and desert shrubsteppe. These falcons can be seen in many areas, but particular locations worth visiting to see them are Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Big Bend National Park, and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.
3. American Kestrel
- Scientific name – Falco sparverius
- Lifespan – 5 years (average), 14 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 8.7 to 12.2 in (22 to 31 cm)
- Weight – 2.8 to 5.8 oz (80 to 165 g)
- Wingspan – 20.1 to 24 in (51 to 61 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The American Kestrel is a small long-winged falcon with a long tail. The male has slate-blue wings and a rusty, black-barred back. The underside colour varies from white to rusty. The female is rusty throughout the body and has black barring on the upper side.
A grey crown and two dark moustachial stripes are present on both the male and female. The underwings are black-and-white patterned. The typical call made by this species is a series of notes sounding like klee or killy.
American Kestrels nest in open and semi-open areas. Instead of building their own nest, these kestrels utilise old woodpecker cavities, naturally made tree cavities, rock crevices, nest boxes and corners of buildings as nest sites. Trees located on the edge of woodland and trees situated in open spaces are most frequently used as nest sites by this species.
The nest is very simple – a shallow hollow made in the cavity using whatever material is left inside. The female lays four to five eggs in a clutch. Up to two clutches of the whitish-yellow or reddish-brown eggs with brown or grey mottling are laid in a season. The incubation period is 26 to 32 days. After hatching, the hatchlings grow for 28 to 31 more days before they fledge.
The American Kestrel feeds on invertebrates, including cicadas, beetles, spiders, grasshoppers, moths, butterflies and scorpions. In addition, they also feed on songbirds, snakes, lizards, frogs and small mammals such as mice, voles, shrews and bats.
American Kestrels have a large, widespread population consisting of 9.2 million breeding individuals. However, there has been a 53% decrease in the population size over the past five decades. The species is threatened by nesting site loss due to tree felling and land clearing. The need for “clean agriculture” has led to the removal of dense vegetation, resulting in decreased prey availability. Many prey items are killed or infected by pesticides which indirectly threaten the American Kestrel.
The American Kestrel is a migratory species that is most abundant from autumn through winter and into spring. It is one of the most common falcons in north Texas as it remains all year round, while most migrate to higher latitudes to breed in summer. This species is found in open habitats with scattered trees and low vegetation, including parks, meadows, grasslands, deserts, agricultural land, suburban areas and cities. This widespread species may be seen in many locations, but the following are worth visiting: Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Big Bend National Park, Goose Island State Park and Brazos Bend State Park.
4. Peregrine Falcon
- Scientific name – Falco peregrinus
- Lifespan – 13 years (average), 19 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 14.2 to 19.3 in (36 to 49 cm)
- Weight – 18.7 to 56.4 oz (530 to 1600 g)
- Wingspan – 39.4 to 43.3 in (100 to 110 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Peregrine Falcon is a large, long-winged falcon with a long tail. This species has whitish underparts with dark horizontal bars on the breast. The upper side is blue-grey, and the head is dark with a thick moustache on the face.
The underwing is whitish with black markings. The call made by this species is a loud, rapid kak-kak-kak.
Peregrine Falcons nest in areas containing tall buildings or cliffs surrounded by open space. The nesting site is usually a cliff ledge, but they may also nest on skyscrapers, towers, bridges and silos. In some circumstances, this species takes over old stick nests made by cormorants, corvids or other raptors.
Their nest is usually a simple depression in the sand or other substrate on the ledge. On the nest, the female usually lays between two and five eggs per season in a single clutch. The eggs are creamy to brownish in colour with purple, brown or red dots or blotches. The incubation period lasts between 29 and 32 days. Once hatched, the chicks develop for 35 to 42 days before they fledge.
The Peregrine Falcon diet consists of birds almost exclusively; almost 2,000 bird species have been documented as prey items, with over 450 species occurring in North America. Common bird prey items are pigeons, ducks, gulls, thrushes, starlings and jays, but they have been known to prey on birds as small as hummingbirds and as large as cranes. They also prey on bats frequently.
Peregrine Falcons are widespread, and the population is currently increasing and recovering after a population collapse in the middle of the twentieth century. It is estimated that 340,000 breeding individuals make up the global population. This falcon is threatened by habitat destruction, human disturbance, poisoning, persecution, illegal hunting and egg collecting.
Peregrine Falcons can be seen state-wide, but the highest numbers are found along the coast in winter. In northern Texas, they only usually occur in the winter months after migration. They are found in most open habitats such as grassland, shrubland, coastlines, and mudflats, but they also occur in mountainous areas, along rivers, on lake edges, in valleys, and urban environments like cities. There are resident breeding populations within the state. They can be seen at Big Bend National Park, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Santa Elena Canyon, and the University of Texas Tower.
- Scientific name – Falco columbarius
- Lifespan – 3 years (average), 11 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 9.4 to 11.8 in (24 to 30 cm)
- Weight – 5.6 to 8.5 oz (160 to 240 g)
- Wingspan – 20.9 to 26.8 in (53 to 68 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Merlin is a small bird of prey with a long tail and wings. The males usually have a grey upperside, a pale moustache and a thin line above the eye. The colour of the body is variable depending on the geographic location, and some subspecies do not have a moustache.
The underside is streaked, and the underwings are dark. The females are brown overall, with a thin line above the eye and heavily streaked underparts. The call produced by the Merlin is a high-pitched chatter.
The Merlin breeds in semi-open and open areas containing deciduous or coniferous trees and shrubs – often near water. Occasionally, they breed in wooded cities. They do not make their own nests but rather use abandoned crow, raven, magpie and hawk stick nests. They may rarely use tree cavities, cliff edges or the ground as nesting sites.
The nest is very simple – a hollow in the debris or substrate of the nesting site. The female lays between four and five eggs in a clutch, and one clutch is laid in a season. The eggs are brown with chestnut-coloured marks. The incubation period of the eggs is 28 to 32 days. Once the chicks hatch, they develop for 25 to 32 days before they fledge.
The Merlin diet consists mainly of birds. Examples of prey items are sandpipers, larks, waxwings, sparrows, and a host of other shorebirds. Bats and dragonflies also become prey in some cases.
The Merlin has had an increase in population size of close to 2% per year for the past five decades. The population of this widespread species is estimated to comprise 3.2 million breeding individuals.
They have benefited from human development which has led to an increase in House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) abundance – a food source of the Merlin. An abundance of crow nests in urban areas has also provided the Merlin with increased nest site availability. Threats include human disturbance at nesting sites, illegal hunting, habitat destruction, egg collection and pesticide usage.
The Merlin is a relatively common migratory species that visits Texas during winter, where it is most frequently found along the coast. In summer, they are absent, as they breed during that time further north. They occur in fragmented woodlands near water sources, grasslands, open deciduous tree forests, coastal habitats, and suburban and urban environments. They are found throughout the state, but some good locations to find them at are the following: Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, South Padre Island and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.
Texas contains some of the best birding sites in the United States and has an extremely high number of recorded species. Texas is a dream birding destination and certainly one of the best states for birding in the United States.
Its location in North America, close to the border with Mexico, means there is a chance of unusual birds for the United States wandering up from Central or South America. That is particularly true for species that reach their range limit in Mexico and may cross into the United States via Texas, as was seen with the Bat Falcon and Collared Forest-falcon.
The falcons of Texas are not globally endangered, but in previous decades, populations have severely declined because of pesticide use. Pesticide use is not a grave threat to birds today compared to previous decades, but it is still essential to keep the use of pesticides under control.
There are, however, other threats that these majestic birds face in the form of habitat destruction, human encroachment, egg collecting and illegal hunting. Some species may benefit from living in urban areas, but the overall effect of human development is negative.
The Aplomado Falcon is a great success story and an example of how a species can be reintroduced into an area where it previously lived and still survive. This shows that it may be done in other areas with other species.
The best time of year to see falcons in Texas is during winter when falcons migrate south from their breeding grounds to warmer areas containing a higher abundance of food. The coastal areas usually have the widest variety of falcons and the best months for viewing falcons are November to March.
To conclude, the five true falcons of Texas are a true sight to behold, with their incredible top speed, hunting capabilities and eyesight. There are very few places in the state where there isn’t at least one falcon species that occurs, so they should be on every birdwatcher’s mind when travelling through the state.