Living Bird Magazine
- ORDER: Falconiformes
- FAMILY: Falconidae
The largest falcon in the world, the ghostly Gyrfalcon is a fierce predator in the High Arctic, where it chases down ptarmigans in flight or plummets from the sky at breathtaking speeds to strike prey to the ground. Nesting on remote cliffs in the far reaches of Canada and Alaska, Gyrfalcons in North America are safe from most human disturbance but face challenges from a warming climate. They are rare winter visitors to open habitats in the northern United States.More ID Info
Find This Bird
Because Gyrfalcons breed so far north, most people encounter them as rarities spotted during winter in the northernmost U.S. and southern Canada. In these areas the birds look for tundra-like habitat including plains, open agricultural land, and coastlines. Peregrine Falcons can look very similar, so be sure to look for the Gyrfalcons bulky body and relatively thick, blunt-tipped wings. Gyrfalcons are used to perching on the ground, so don’t just search the skies—be sure to scan open stretches of ground, where they may be standing at rest or sheltering next to a rock or shrub.
- Halcón Gerifalte (Spanish)
- Faucon gerfaut (French)
- Cool Facts
- Gyrfalcon is pronounced as "JER-falcon." The name probably evolved from Old Norse, but linguists do not completely agree on the specific origin of the word.
- The Gyrfalcon hunts mostly ptarmigan, and its breeding distribution is strikingly similar to that of the Rock Ptarmigan. But it preys on many other bird species, including sage-grouse, jaegers, gulls, terns, fulmars, auks, pheasants, hawks, owls, ravens, and songbirds. It can also hunt mammals as big as hares.
- When their chicks are too small to eat an entire prey item in one meal, female Gyrfalcons store leftovers behind vegetation within a few hundred feet of the nest, and retrieve the food later for themselves or their chicks. Little is known of food-caching outside the breeding season; in one case, a Gyrfalcon was seen retrieving a frozen ptarmigan and chipping off pieces of meat to eat, in mid-winter in the Aleutian Islands.
- During the breeding season, a family of Gyrfalcons needs an estimated 2–3 pounds of food per day. That’s about 2-3 ptarmigans per day, which adds up to about 150-200 ptarmigan consumed between courtship and fledging.
- Male Gyrfalcons are commonly seen capturing fledgling songbirds in the area around the nest. They probably seek small prey only when it can be obtained quickly, since larger prey provides a bigger payoff for their efforts.
- Adult males are much smaller than females: males average less than 3 pounds while females average up to 4 pounds. Both males and females have highly variable plumage coloration, ranging from nearly pure white to dark gray-brown. In North America, most are an intermediate gray color.
- The oldest Gyrfalcon recorded was a male and at least 15 years, 9 months when he was identified by his band in 2016 in Wisconsin. He had been banded in the same state in 2003.