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Prairie Falcon

Falco mexicanus ORDER: FALCONIFORMES FAMILY: FALCONIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A raptor of the West’s wide-open spaces, Prairie Falcons glide above shrubby deserts and grasslands searching for ground squirrels and other small mammals and birds. In flight, look for the dark triangle of “armpit” feathers that distinguish it from other light-colored falcons. On the breeding territory you may hear a Prairie Falcon pair’s loud courtship calls, but roosting birds can be tough to spot: their muted cream, brown, and gray plumage blends perfectly with the steep bluffs and cliffs where they nest.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
14.6–18.5 in
37–47 cm
Wingspan
35.4–44.5 in
90–113 cm
Weight
14.8–38.8 oz
420–1100 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Merlin; smaller than a Swainson's Hawk.
Other Names
  • Faucon des Prairies (French)
  • Halcon mexicano, Halcon Pradeño, Halcon café, Halcon palido (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Prairie Falcon sometimes bathes in river shallows, but dust-bathing is probably more common than water-bathing, because of the general scarcity of standing water in its habitat.
  • Like Peregrine Falcons, Prairie Falcons are highly susceptible to the eggshell-thinning effects of DDT. Prairie Falcon populations weren't hit as hard as peregrines and Merlins in the 20th century because their mammal-based diet exposed them to lower pesticide levels than their bird-eating relatives.
  • Prairie Falcons are among the species of birds that seem to play—they've been seen dropping dried cow manure in midair and then diving to catch it. Like young ball players flipping a baseball to themselves, this may be a way to sharpen their coordination skills.
  • Prairie Falcon pairs are notoriously aggressive in defending their nest sites—against Great Horned Owls, eagles, hawks, and even other Prairie Falcons, sometimes killing fledglings that stray into the wrong territory.
  • Prairie Falcons are popular falconry birds, and 19 states allow falconers to capture the birds (mostly as nestlings) to train.
  • The oldest known Prairie Falcon was at least 17 years, 3 months old based on banding data. It was banded in Alberta in 1975, and killed by another raptor in Montana in 1992.

Habitat


Grassland

Prairie Falcons breed in open country throughout the West wherever they can find bluffs and cliffs to nest on, including in alpine habitat to about 11,000 feet. Breeding habitats include grasslands, shrubsteppe desert, areas of mixed shrubs and grasslands, or alpine tundra that supports abundant ground squirrel or pika populations. Breeding birds sometimes forage in agricultural fields. The majority of Prairie Falcons spend the winter in the Great Plains and Great Basin, in habitat that supports the Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks that make up much of their wintertime diet. This includes grasslands, sage scrub, dry-farmed wheat fields, irrigated cropland, and cattle feedlots, where the falcons also prey on European Starlings.

Food


Birds

Prairie Falcons in summer eat mostly small mammals, particularly ground squirrels. They also eat pikas, birds, and insects. Prairie Falcons breeding in California and Utah also eat many shorebirds, Mourning Doves, and other bird species. Nesting pairs cache excess prey in clumps of vegetation and rocky areas within their territory, and males and females cache food in separate sites. Such caches provide a buffer against times when finding prey is difficult. In winter most Prairie Falcons switch to a diet featuring Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
1.9–2.2 in
4.7–5.6 cm
Egg Width
1.4–1.7 in
3.6–4.3 cm
Incubation Period
29–39 days
Nestling Period
29–47 days
Egg Description
Creamy white to pink or russet, spotted with brown or cinnamon.
Condition at Hatching
Covered in light down, eyes partly open. Eyes open fully within 1–2 days.
Nest Description

Prairie Falcons do little nest building beyond scratching together loose debris into a small depression or scrape to hold the eggs. They do lay eggs in abandoned stick nests of other species, especially Common Ravens and Golden Eagles. erial.

Nest Placement

Cliff

During courtship, the male and female spend a month or more visiting potential nest sites together. The site they select is most often in a natural crevice, pothole, or ledge on a cliff or steep bluff, with an overhang to protect the nest. Pairs have also used artificial nest sites dug or drilled into rock faces as part of conservation measures. Most cliff nests are built on the upper half of the cliff face to protect them from mammalian predators. Prairie Falcons also nest in trees, on powerline structures, in caves or stone quarries, and on buildings.

Behavior


Aerial Forager

Prairie Falcons glide with their wings held flat or slightly below the body with wingtips curled up. When flapping to gain altitude, their wingbeats are short and rapid, and the smaller male has a faster wingbeat than the female. Prairie Falcons search for prey from perches, when soaring, and on low-level “strafing” flights, flying as low as 10 feet off the ground. They most often take prey by surprise, gliding on a low approach (or occasionally stooping from high up) to grab a small mammal, bird, or insect in their talons. On the breeding grounds courting Prairie Falcons soar and vocalize together in front of potential nest sites for up to a month before choosing a nesting location. Although pair members roost near each other when courting, the male may choose to spend the night well away from the nest once the eggs are laid. In Oregon, males’ night roosts were located an average of 3 miles from the nest site. During the breeding season, pairs patrol their territorial boundaries throughout the day and attack Prairie Falcons and other raptors that enter their territory, stooping on them and giving a loud kik-kik-kik alarm call while chasing them away. In turn, Prairie Falcons are vulnerable to sometimes-fatal attacks by Peregrine Falcons defending a nest site. Great Horned Owls and Golden Eagles also prey on Prairie Falcon adults and chicks. After the breeding season, most Prairie Falcons don’t migrate directly to wintering areas, but instead “wander” east or even north of their breeding grounds before moving south.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Prairie Falcons are fairly numerous and widespread, although they are hard to survey accurately enough to estimate population trends. According to the North American Breeding Bird survey, populations appeared to be stable between 1966 and 2014. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 80,000 birds, with 84% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 21% in Mexico, and 5% in Canada. Prairie Falcon rates a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and does not appear on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. Prairie Falcons were affected by the widespread use of DDT in the mid-20th century. A metabolite of DTT called DDE causes eggshell thinning, resulting in widespread reproductive failure and population crashes for many avian top predators. Prairie Falcons proved just as susceptible to DDE (or more so) as Peregrine Falcons, but suffered fewer losses because their diet of more mammals and fewer birds exposed them to lower levels of the pollutant. Although it’s illegal to hunt Prairie Falcons, shooting is still a common cause of mortality. Degradation of breeding habitat is also a concern: grassland converted to irrigated agriculture, particularly large-scale monocrops, supports fewer of the ground squirrels that Prairie Falcons rely on. In contrast, smaller-scale agricultural development that offers water and ground cover for ground squirrels can benefit breeding Prairie Falcons. Other factors that impact the birds include extensive wildfires that affect ground squirrel populations, mining development that destroys nesting sites, and human disturbance in nesting areas, including military training activities and road development. Prairie Falcons have benefited from legislation that bans mining and agricultural development in their breeding areas, as well as from the creation of artificial nest sites, limits on human activity near nests, and reintroduction efforts in Alberta and California.

Credits

  • Steenhof, K. 2013. Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus). In The Birds of North America Online, No. 346 (P. Rodewald, Ed.). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.
  • Crossley, R., J. Ligouri, and B. Sullivan. 2013. The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  • Dunne, P. 2006. Pete Dunne’s essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
  • IUCN. 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (ver. 2012.1).
  • Ligouri, J. 2011. Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  • North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee. 2014. State of the Birds 2014 Report. U.S. Department of Interior, Washington, DC.
  • Partners in Flight. 2012. Species assessment database.
  • Sibley, D.A. 2014. The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
  • Snyder, H. 2001. Falcons and caracaras. In The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, C. Elpchick, J. B. Dunning, Jr., and D. A. Sibley, eds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
  • USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2015. Longevity records of North American Birds.
  • USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2014. North American Breeding Bird Survey 1966–2014 analysis.

Range Map Help

Prairie Falcon Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to short-distance migrant. Many California birds don’t migrate. In other regions, Prairie Falcons move between distinct breeding and wintering areas, but individuals may move north or east, as well as south, following patterns of food availability.

Find This Bird

Look for these fairly large falcons in the open, treeless spaces of the West, where they can be dwarfed by the size of the landscape. Prairie Falcons spend much of the day on the move, so you'll need to be quick with your binoculars. Watch for them cruising fairly low over the land rather than soaring high in the sky. It's also worth scanning for perched birds, which you may find sitting on low perches including fence posts and irrigation structures.

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