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Gyrfalcon

Falco rusticolus ORDER: FALCONIFORMES FAMILY: FALCONIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

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.

Keys to identification Help

Hawks
Hawks
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Gyrfalcons are very large falcons. They have pointed wings, but they are not as pointed or as narrow as the wings of smaller falcons. The tail is relatively long. The body is thick and powerful, particularly in females, which are substantially larger than males.

  • Color Pattern

    Although the classic image of a Gyrfalcon is a regal white bird with black spotting, the birds occur in shades of white, gray, and dark brown. In North America, gray birds are more numerous than the other two morphs. Adults are heavily barred on the back, wings, and tail, with spotted underparts. Juveniles are heavily streaked; the flight feathers of dark juveniles are lighter and contrast with the rest of the wing.

  • Behavior

    They hunt primarily birds in open country, sometimes flying high and attacking from above, but more often approaching fast and low, hugging ground contours. They often perch on the ground.

  • Habitat

    Gyrfalcons breed on arctic tundra. When they come south for winter, they look for similar habitat: open fields, coastlines, dunes, prairie, and shrubsteppe.

Range Map Help

Gyrfalcon Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

Similar Species

Similar Species

Peregrine Falcon is smaller, with narrower, more pointed wings. Peregrines also have stronger facial markings, with a thick black mustache stripe. Prairie Falcons are also smaller than Gyrfalcons, with slimmer, more pointed wings. In flight, Prairie Falcons show prominent dark axillaries or “armpits” that Gyrfalcons lack.

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.

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bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

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