What types of falcons can you find in Virginia?
Lucky for you, no matter where you live in Virginia, you should be able to find at least a few falcon species nearby!
Falcons are incredible birds of prey that are known for their speed and exceptional hunting abilities. For example, nothing on the planet is faster than a Peregrine Falcon when it’s diving for prey. These incredible raptors have been recorded at speeds up to 200 mph (320 km/h)!
Below is a list of the 3 types of falcons in Virginia!
Make sure to pay attention to the range maps to see which falcons live near you! For each species, I have included a few photographs, along with their most common sounds, to help you identify any birds you are lucky enough to observe.
#1. Peregrine Falcon
- Falco peregrinus
Peregrine Falcons can be found everywhere in Virginia, and are actually located on every continent except Antarctica. Because of their fondness of nesting on the sides of tall buildings, these falcons are common in cities where they can become quite the local celebrities!
There is little color differentiation amongst individual birds and sexes. Both males and females have a slate grey/bluish-black back with faint barring. Their chest is white to tan with thin dark lines. Immature birds are often much browner than adults. Like almost all species of falcons, females are larger than males.
Peregrine Falcon Range Map
Peregrine Falcons have the honor of being the FASTEST animal on the planet!
Don’t be fooled by stories that the cheetah is the fastest creature. Oh sure, they can crank it up to 75 mph (120 kph), and that is amazing for being on the ground. But when a Peregrine Falcon dives, it can reach speeds of up to 200 mph (320 kph)! And it starts its journey from as high as 3,000 feet, so it cruises at these high speeds for a considerable distance.
CHECK OUT THE VIDEO BELOW TO SEE THE INCREDIBLE DIVING ABILITIES OF THE PEREGRINE.
At the high speeds that these falcons can travel, their lungs should inflate and burst. But because they have a bony bump in their nose, it disrupts the airflow just like the dome shape on the front of a jet engine. Nature never ceases to amaze!
Peregrine Falcons primarily eat other birds. In fact, at least 450 different types of birds have been documented as their prey. They are not picky and take almost anything they can catch, including ducks, gulls, pigeons, and songbirds. These raptors have been observed killing individuals as small as a hummingbird, and as large as a Sandhill Crane. When they are not eating birds, it’s common for these birds of prey to hunt bats.
You won’t hear a Peregrine Falcon make much noise, except for around its nesting site as an alarm call. It sounds like “kack-kack-kack-kack.” Press the PLAY button above to hear an example!
Length: 13-23 inches / 34-58 cm
Weight: 12-53 oz. / 330-1500 gm
Wingspan: 29-47 inches / 74-120 cm
#2. American Kestrel
- Falco sparverius
The American Kestrel is the smallest falcon in Virginia and is roughly the size of an American Robin. Don’t let the tiny stature fool you, though, because this raptor is an accomplished hunter.
You may have heard of a kestrel’s alternate name, which is the Sparrow Hawk. This name was given because they will take sparrows and other birds of that size right out of the air!
American Kestrel Range Map
American Kestrels are the most widespread and numerous falcons on the continent, and common to see in Virginia.
One of their favorite strategies to catch prey is to hover in the breeze from a relatively low height, looking for insects, invertebrates, small rodents, and birds. Their diverse diet is one reason they can occupy ecological niches from central Alaska down to the southernmost tip of South America. Life can be tough when you’re the smallest falcon since they are sometimes eaten as prey by larger raptors, as well as rat snakes and corn snakes!
American Kestrels are unlike most other falcons because males and females look different!
Males are quite blue or grey in the wing area, with white bellies and flanks having black barring and/or spots, but their backs are rust-colored (rufous) with black bars, but only on the lower half. Females, on the other hand, have rusty colored backs and wings, but with brown barring. Their bellies tend to be buff or tan, with significant brown streaks. The heads of both sexes are interchangeable, however, being white with a blue-grey cap.
Kestrels have a distinct call that sounds much like it’s saying “klee-klee-klee” or “killy, killy, killy,” which is usually repeated rapidly. Press the PLAY button above to hear an example!
The American Kestrel is comfortable around people, and will quite commonly use human-made nest boxes to raise their young. Their numbers have been steadily declining, so any help we can give them is beneficial. They are relatively common as long there are at least a few trees around and can be found in many habitats, including parks, pastures, meadows, grasslands, deserts, and meadows.
Length: 9-12 inches / 22-31 cm
Weight: 2.8-5.8 oz. / 80-165 gm
Wingspan: 20-24 inches / 51-61 cm
- Falco columbarius
Merlins are small, fierce falcons that are widespread across Virginia. With that being said, they are not that common to observe and are unpredictable in regards to their range. They are a bit larger than the American Kestrel, with a stockier build, sharply pointed wings, and medium-length tail.
Merlin males typically have a streaky black to silver-grey back and wings, and a light-colored (tending to a slightly orange) chest. But their coloration changes depending on their specific range and if they are male or female. Females tend to be lighter than males and are brown-grey to dark brown on the back and have a whitish front with brown spots below.
Merlin Range Map
Merlins can be found almost everywhere in Virginia.
The specific habitat they use depends a bit on exactly where you live. Shrublands, grasslands, boreal forests, parks, cemeteries, prairies, coastal areas, and near rivers are all suitable habitat. To complicate things, these raptors migrate and move around. Most individuals migrate south once the weather gets cold, but there are a few places in the country where you can see Merlins year-round.
You can always identify a Merlin by its rapid wingbeats and because it is so small. But despite its diminutive stature, this falcon is an incredibly fierce bird and uses surprise attacks to bring down its prey. It is so bold that it has been seen attacking trains and cars that enter its territory. The Merlin is one bird you don’t want to annoy or make nervous!
While generally silent, it’s possible to hear a loud, high cackle that sounds like “klee-klee-klee.” Typically these calls are made during courtship or when showing aggression. Press the PLAY button above to hear an example!
Merlins rely on their speed and athleticism to catch prey!
Mated pairs have been known to work cooperatively, with one driving prey right into the claws of their partner. Like most falcons, Merlins eat a wide variety of foods, including dragonflies, moths, bats, voles, and reptiles. But smaller birds are its primary source of nutrition. Sparrows, sandpipers, larks, pipits, and even the similarly sized rock pigeons are all perfectly acceptable.
Like most falcons, Merlins don’t build their own nests, but instead, they reuse other birds’ abandoned homes. Their favorites are nests built by crows, jays, hawks, or magpies. It’s also rare for them to reuse the same nests, instead opting to locate a new one each breeding season.
Length: 9-13 inches / 23-33 cm
Weight: 4.4-10.6 oz. / 125-300 gm
Wingspan: 21-23 inches / 53-58 cm
Do you need help identifying falcons?
Here are a few books and resources you can purchase that will assist! (Links below take you to Amazon)
Which falcons have you seen before in Virginia?
Leave a comment below!