Falcons are streamlined fast-flying hawks. They have long, narrow, pointed wings and long narrow tails. They feed primarily on other birds and usually capture their prey in mid-air. Birds of open areas, falcons are seldom found in woods. Recendy, some have adapted to living in cities and towns, nesting on bridges and buildings, in close proximity to humans.
American kestrel (Falco sparverius)
The American Kestrel, sometimes called the Sparrow Hawk, is North America’s smallest falcon. Once common in New Jersey, their population has diminished considerably in recent years for reasons as yet unclear. Although this bird is easily seen perched on roadside wires throughout the state, it is often not recognized as a hawk because of its resemblance to a songbird. Perched, it looks similar to a dove or robin. From head to tail, the Kestrel measures only 10 to 12 inches, but its wings are long, spanning up to 2 feet. Unlike most other birds of prey, in which the sexes look alike, male and female Kestrels have different color plumages. Females have rufous backs and wings, barred with black, while males have rufous backs and blue-gray wings. Kestrels catch most of their prey on the ground. They are often seen perched on telephone poles and wires, like sentinels of the road, searching the terrain below. They also hunt on the wing, characteristically hovering over grassy areas. Grasshoppers, crickets and other insects are eaten in great numbers when available; but mice, voles, snakes and songbirds are also taken. Kestrels are unique among our falcons in that they are hole-nesters, using natural cavities in trees and small openings in buildings. They are the only North American hawks that will nest in bird boxes.
Merlin (Falco columbarius)
Merlins are small dark falcons just slighdy larger than Kestrels. They measure 10 to iy/2 inches long and have wingspans of 24 to 27 inches. Immature Merlins are brown above, while adults are blue-gray; both young and adult birds have heavy dark brown vertical streaks on their underparts. Their tails are long with prominent dark bands. When flying and perched, a Merlin resembles a dark pigeon. Like other falcons, Merlins are birds of open country and generally avoid wooded areas. Tliey are fast-flying aerial acrobats and hunt primarily on the wing, catching other birds (their main food), some insects and occasionally small mammals.Although they do not breed in New Jersey, large numbers of Merlins can be seen here, primarily along the coast, during their spring and fall migrations.
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
This mighty falcon is one of the most widely distributed birds in the world, inhabiting every continent except Antarctica. It’s scientific name peregrinus means “wanderer,” a reference to its long-distance migrations. In the mid 20th century Peregrine populations suffered drastic declines, primarily because of DDT poisoning. In 1970, there were only 39 known breeding pairs in the entire lower 48 states. Since the 1972 federal ban on the use of DDT and the initiation of conservation programs on their behalf, Peregrines have been brought back from the brink of extinction. New Jersey’s small breeding population is considered endangered.
Peregrines are large falcons, 15 to 20 inches long, with a wingspan of 3^ feet. They have a distinctive facial pattern with a dark “mustache” mark on the cheeks. Adult Peregrines have slate blue backs.
Their favored nesting sites are generally high, rocky cliff ledges in remote places overlooking a lake, stream, or river, but they are known to nest on the rooftops or ledges of city buildings and in the steelwork of bridges.
Peregrines feed mainly on other birds, catching whatever is available, from small songbirds to large ducks. They dive at incredible speeds, approaching 200 miles an hour, to capture their prey in mid-air.