Flight of the Falcon

Prized by kings, enjoyed by many.  

By Brian Morin | March/April 2019

They have been prized by kings for over 4000 years — a symbol of privilege and power. Falcons were trained to hunt small game such as grouse, pigeons and rabbits and were admired for their aerial abilities, especially their speed and unrelenting pursuit of prey. While falconry is practiced by the few, far more people enjoy just observing them as they grace our skies with their presence.

Several falcons can be found in our area, from the small American Kestrel to the regal Peregrine. All of these raptors share a common form, with streamlined bodies and tapered wings that increase the birds’ agility. They also have incredibly acute eyesight enabling them to detect prey at a distance, using speed to their advantage.

The Kestrel is a colourful bird about the size of a Mourning Dove. Unlike other raptors, this species is a cavity nester, finding a home in a tree hole, old barn or even a nest box. While they will catch small rodents and birds, they feed heavily on large insects during the summer. Once known as the Sparrow Hawk, it could more appropriately be dubbed the ‘grasshopper hawk’.

The Kestrel’s small, less muscular stature is more conducive to ambush hunting, perching on a wire or tree until prey is spotted. They will, however, leave the perch and hover over an open area watching for motion below.

One thing you’ll quickly discover is that this bird is very skittish. It is intolerant of onlookers and if you are driving along a country road and spot one on a wire, you will likely get no closer than the pole ahead before the bird moves further down the line. For photographers, it is notoriously frustrating. Because of its preference for insects, most head south for the winter.

Slightly larger than the Kestrel and often found within cities, the Merlin is like a miniature Peregrine in appearance. This species hunts small birds and large insects like dragonflies, with most departing for warmer climates in the fall. There has been a slow increase in the Merlin population with birds often taking up residence in urban areas, where there is an abundant supply of small birds. If you have a large pine or spruce on your property, you might be a candidate for a breeding pair.

Such was the case last summer, when two pairs set up shop in Cornwall and defended their nesting territory with regular swoops at pedestrians. A few times, one of the birds’ talons made contact with an exposed arm or even a head, which is unusual behaviour. Once the young had left the nest the aggressive activity ceased.

The Merlin’s larger cousin, the Peregrine, owns the sky. In a dive, the Peregrine can top 300 kph making it the fastest creature in the air. It is capable of taking grouse, ducks and songbirds and is a terror when it comes to shorebirds and pigeons. Birders know that in areas where a number of shorebirds are present in migration, you can expect to see one or two scanning the shore for a prospective meal. Last spring, a juvenile repeatedly harassed shorebirds at a site east of Ottawa, scaring off three rarities on different days. There were a lot of unhappy birders.

In the wild, Peregrines are cliff nesters, but they have happily taken up residence within our cities where tall structures abound. There aren’t many, but those that are there attract a lot of local attention, with some nest sites on ledges having webcams set-up to monitor activity. It is a great learning experience. Ottawa and the GTA have a few breeding pairs with a few other cities having one as well.

The largest and rarest falcon is the Gyrfalcon. A few of these Arctic birds come south in the winter but within all of Southern, Central and Eastern Ontario there might only be one or two. Seeing one of these beauties is quite a catch and a birder’s dream. Their winter territory can be many kilometres in extent so even when a bird is present, luck will have a great deal to do with finding one. They will take large quarry such as ducks, pigeons, hares and even Snowy Owls.

Unlike others in the family, Gyrfalcons have different plumages, from mostly white birds to ones that are gray or dark. How they hatch is how they stay for life.

Last winter I spotted a gray morph in the Kingston area, but it took numerous visits before luck came my way. When you see one, you understand why these birds were prized by kings and why it is the national animal of Iceland.

Regardless of the species, spotting a falcon is a treat. This is one family of birds that never disappoints.


Brian Morin is the publisher of Ontario Birding News, a newsletter for birding enthusiasts. He has been actively involved in watching and photographing birds in Ontario for more than 40 years.