Falconidae – Falcons, Kestrels & Caracaras

Nankeen Kestrel Falco cenchroides ©Steven Brumby Website

The Falconidae or falcons and caracaras are a family of around 60 species of diurnal birds of prey. The family is divided into two subfamilies, Polyborinae, which includes the caracaras and forest falcons, and Falconinae, the falcons, kestrels and falconets (Microhierax and Spiziapteryx). They differ from the eagles of Accipitridae, in that falcons kill with their beaks instead of their taloned feet. They have a ‘tooth’ on the side of their beak for the purpose.

Falcons and caracaras are small to medium-sized birds of prey, ranging in size from the Black-thighed Falconet, which can weigh as little as 35 grams to the Gyrfalcon, which can weigh as much as 1,735 grams. They have strongly hooked bills, sharply curved talons and excellent eyesight. The plumage is usually composed of browns, whites, chestnut, black and grey, often with barring of patterning. There is little difference in the plumage of males and females, although a few species have some sexual dimorphism in boldness of plumage.

The family has a cosmopolitan distribution across the world, absent only from the densest forest of central Africa, some remote oceanic islands, the high Arctic and Antarctica. Some species have exceptionally wide ranges, particularly the cosmopolitan Peregrine Falcon, which ranges from Greenland to Fiji and has the widest natural breeding distribution of any bird. Other species have more restricted distributions, particularly island endemics like the Mauritius Kestrel. Most habitat types are occupied, from tundra to rainforest and deserts, although they are generally more birds of open country and even forest species tend to prefer broken forest and forest edges. Some species, mostly in the genus Falco, are fully migratory, with some species summering in Eurasia and wintering entirely in Africa, other species may be partly migratory. The Amur Falcon has one of the longest migrations, moving from East Asia to southern Africa.

Falcons and caracaras are carnivores, feeding on birds, small mammals including bats, reptiles, insects and carrion. In popular imagination the falconids are fast flying predators, and while this is true of the genus Falco and some falconets other species, particularly the caracaras are more sedentary in their feeding. The forest falcons of the Neotropics are generalist forest hunters. Several species, particularly the true falcons, will stash food supplies in caches. They are solitary hunters and pairs guard territories, although they may form large flocks during migration. Some species are specialists, the Laughing Falcon specialises in snakes, others are more generalist.

They are generally solitary breeders, although around 10% of species are colonial, for example the Red-footed Falcon. They are monogamous, although some caracaras may also employ alloparenting strategies, where younger birds help adults (usually their parents) in raising the next brood of chicks. Nests are generally not built (except by the caracaras), but are co opted from other birds, for example Pygmy Falcons nest in the nests of weavers, or on the ledges on cliffs. Around 2 to 4 eggs are laid, and mostly incubated by the female. Incubation times vary from species to species and are correlated with body size, lasting 28 days in smaller species and up to 35 days in larger species. Chicks fledge after 28 to 49 days, again varying with size.

According to the IOC there are 65 extant species in the family Falconidae, which are:

Black Caracara Daptrius ater

Red-throated Caracara Ibycter americanus

Carunculated Caracara Phalcoboenus carunculatus
Mountain Caracara Phalcoboenus megalopterus
White-throated Caracara Phalcoboenus albogularis
Striated Caracara Phalcoboenus australis

Northern Crested Caracara Caracara cheriway
Southern Crested Caracara Caracara plancus

Yellow-headed Caracara Milvago chimachima
Chimango Caracara Milvago chimango

Laughing Falcon Herpetotheres cachinnans

Barred Forest Falcon Micrastur ruficollis
Plumbeous Forest Falcon Micrastur plumbeus
Lined Forest Falcon Micrastur gilvicollis
Cryptic Forest Falcon Micrastur mintoni
Slaty-backed Forest Falcon Micrastur mirandollei
Collared Forest Falcon Micrastur semitorquatus
Buckley’s Forest Falcon Micrastur buckleyi

Spot-winged Falconet Spiziapteryx circumcincta

Pygmy Falcon Polihierax semitorquatus
White-rumped Falcon Polihierax insignis

Collared Falconet Microhierax caerulescens
Black-thighed Falconet Microhierax fringillarius
White-fronted Falconet Microhierax latifrons
Philippine Falconet Microhierax erythrogenys
Pied Falconet Microhierax melanoleucos

Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Rock Kestrel Falco rupicolus
Malagasy Kestrel Falco newtoni
Mauritius Kestrel Falco punctatus
Seychelles Kestrel Falco araeus
Spotted Kestrel Falco moluccensis
Nankeen Kestrel Falco cenchroides
American Kestrel Falco sparverius
Greater Kestrel Falco rupicoloides
Fox Kestrel Falco alopex
Grey Kestrel Falco ardosiaceus
Dickinson’s Kestrel Falco dickinsoni
Banded Kestrel Falco zoniventris
Red-necked Falcon Falco chicquera
Red-footed Falcon Falco vespertinus
Amur Falcon Falco amurensis
Eleonora’s Falcon Falco eleonorae
Sooty Falcon Falco concolor
Aplomado Falcon Falco femoralis
Merlin Falco columbarius
Bat Falcon Falco rufigularis
Orange-breasted Falcon Falco deiroleucus
Eurasian Hobby Falco subbuteo
African Hobby Falco cuvierii
Oriental Hobby Falco severus
Australian Hobby Falco longipennis
New Zealand Falcon Falco novaeseelandiae
Brown Falcon Falco berigora
Grey Falcon Falco hypoleucos
Black Falcon Falco subniger
Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus
Laggar Falcon Falco jugger
Saker Falcon Falco cherrug
Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus
Prairie Falcon Falco mexicanus
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus
Barbary Falcon Falco pelegrinoides
Taita Falcon Falco fasciinucha

Species Links
  • Black-thighed Falconet Microhierax fringillarius

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Black-thighed Falconet Microhierax fringillarius

    Species Account
    The black-thighed falconet (Microhierax fringillarius) is one of the smallest birds of prey, typically measuring between 14–16 centimetres (5.5–6.3 in) long, with a 27–32 centimetres (11–13 in) wingspan, which is a size comparable to a typical sparrow.[2] It is native to Brunei Darussalam, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. and vagrant to Sri Lanka.
  • Black-thighed Falconet Microhierax fringillarius

    IUCN Species Status
    Black-thighed Falconet Microhierax fringillarius has most recently been assessed for The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2016. Microhierax fringillarius is listed as Least Concern.
  • Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus

    Species Account
    The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), also known as the peregrine,[1] and historically as the duck hawk in North America,[2] is a widespread bird of prey in the family Falconidae. A large, crow-sized falcon, it has a blue-grey back, barred white underparts, and a black head. As is typical of bird-eating raptors, peregrine falcons are sexually dimorphic, females being considerably larger than males.
  • Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus

    IUCN Species Status
    Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus has most recently been assessed for The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2021. Falco peregrinus is listed as Least Concern.
  • Southern Crested Caracara Caracara plancus

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Southern Crested Caracara Caracara plancus

    Species Account
    The southern crested caracara (Caracara plancus), also known as the southern caracara or carancho, is a bird of prey in the family Falconidae. As presently defined, the southern crested caracara is restricted to central and southern South America.
  • Southern Crested Caracara Caracara plancus

    Cornell Species Account
    The Southern Caracara is a distinctive raptor that occurs widely in open areas of central and southern South America. It inhabits agricultural land, grasslands, marshes, and open forest primarily in lowlands from eastern Brazil and extreme southern Peru south to Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands.
  • Southern Crested Caracara Caracara plancus

    IUCN Species Status
    Southern Caracara Caracara plancus has most recently been assessed for The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2016. Caracara plancus is listed as Least Concern.
Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 65

Useful Reading
  • Bolt from the Blue - Wild Peregrines on the Hunt

    | By Dick Dekker Hancock House Paperback US$16.95p
    See Fatbirder Review ISBN: 0888394349 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • Falcon

    | By Helen Macdonald - Series: ANIMAL SERIES 224 pages, 100 illustrations, 25 in colour.Reaktion Books 2006 ISBN: 1861892381 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • Kestrels for Company

    | By Gordon Riddle | 198 pages | 150 Colour Photos & Tables | Whittles Publishing | Softcover | 2011
    See Fatbirder Review ISBN: 9781849950299 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • Peregrine Falcon

    | By Patrick Stirling-Aird | Bloomsbury 2015 | 128 Pages | 80 Colour Photos | Paperback
    See Fatbirder Review ISBN: 9781472918666 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • Raptors of the World

    | A Field Guide by James Ferguson-Lees & David Christie Illustrated by Kim Franklin, David Mead, Philip Burton & Alan Harris published by Christopher Helm in Paperback 2006
    See Fatbirder Review ISBN: 0713669578 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • The Common Kestrel

    | By Richard Sale | Snowfinch Publishing | 2020 | Hardback | 392 Pages | Colour Photos, Colour Illustrations | ISBN: 9780957173248 | ISBN: 9780957173248 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • The Gyrfalcon

    | By Eugene Potapov & Richard Sale Christopher Helm 2005
    See Fatbirder Review ISBN: 0713665637 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • The Merlin

    | By Richard Sale | Snowfinch Publishing | 2020 | Hardback | 352 Pages | Colour & B&W Photos & Illustrations | ISBN: 9780957173224 | ISBN: 9780957173224 Buy this book from NHBS.com
Useful Information
  • UK Peregrine Projects

    There are links to many of the UK's Peregrine projects & webcams here: http://derbyperegrines.blogspot.co.uk/p/links.html
  • BirdLife Australia Raptor Group

    Promoting the study, conservation and management of Australian diurnal and nocturnal birds of prey
  • Canadian Peregrine Foundation

    Welcome to the Canadian Peregrine Foundation! We are a registered charity dedicated to assisting the recovery of the peregrine falcon and other Canadian raptor species.
  • Peregrine Fund

    The Peregrine Fund developed from the shared concern of students and associates that the Peregrine Falcon might go extinct in the wild if nothing was done. Our initial work was to learn how to breed falcons in captivity, with the idea the young could be released in the wild to re-establish the Peregrine in the eastern United States where it was already gone and to bolster the greatly diminished western populations
  • The Raptor Centre at the University of Minnesota

    The Raptor Center is an international medical facility for birds of prey.
Other Links
  • Aves de Rapina Brasil

    Welcome to the biggest Brazilian website dedicated to raptors. The webmaster, Willian MenQ, is a graduate student in Biological Sciences. He works in conservation and ornithology in the region the northwest of the Paraná, studying raptors…
  • Movements and Genetics of Grey Falcons

    A project by Jonny Schoenjahn - Perth, Western Australia. The Grey Falcon is one of Australia's rarest, and no doubt its least studied, birds of prey. One of the reasons for that deficiency is the remoteness of the Grey Falcon's preferred habitat together with the species' scarcity, making data collection slow and tedious…

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