Falcons

There will be no Falcons in the Super Bowl, only Ravens, this year. But, there has been a lot of talk about Falcons lately so I jotted down a few notes and thought I’d share them with you.

One year after moving to Minnesota, I relocated to the city of Falcon Heights. If you know the Twin Cities you may be familiar with the “Saint Paul Campus” of the University of Minnesota. This campus is located almost entirely within Falcon Heights, not Saint Paul, and I think this is a missed opportunity. How cool would it be to take classes in ornithology, or visit the Raptor Center, in Falcon Heights Minnesota, rather than pretending to be in Saint Paul when one is not? Someday, perhaps, this transgression will be repaired.

In any event, during that very year (and I lived there for only one year, so I have the timing nailed down) the Minnesota Vikings were in the playoffs with serious Super Bowl prospects. All they needed to do was to beat the Atlanta Falcons to move on to the Big Game. During the night, before the weekend on which the playoff game would be held, City of Falcon Heights public works technicians, or somebody, visited all the signs on the border, all the signs that said “Welcome to Falcon Heights,” and changed them to read “Welcome to Vikings Heights.”

The Vikings were expected to win this game easily. Instead, they lost the game badly. The signs were changed back quietly.

The main large falcon in the Twin Cities is the Peregrine Falcon, and here they live on office buildings and beneath large bridges spanning the Mississippi. But we are not that far from the range of the Prairie Falcon. If you look at most bird guides, the Prairie Falcon will be shown to the west of Minnesota, in the Dakotas, and to the south in Western Iowa, but if you look at actual sighting data, you’ll see that they are spotted now and then in the North Star State. The other common falcon here is the American Kestrel but we also have the equally diminutive Merlin.

There are a lot of interesting things about Falcons you should know. One is the taxonomic relationship of these various birds. It is a bit complex and beyond the scope of this post, but the thing that is most interesting to me is the position of the Caracara. The Caracara, which is a vulture-like falcon (perhaps) is in with the other Falcons taxonomically, yet the Falcons are part of a larger group that includes regular raptors. This is interesting because birds that tend to scavenge have adaptations that facilitate scavenging which are virtually antithetical to those that characterize the swift and powerful Peregrine and kin. In other words, within the diurnal raptors that are not vultures, the Caracara as a group and the large typical falcons as a group are truly opposites, yet uncannily closely related.

Another interesting thing about the larger Falcons is the way they demonstrate the altriciality of large raptors. Many large raptors take a very long time to develop, in some cases two or three years, into full adulthood. This may be because it is hard to be a large raptor so it takes a lot of physical development and learning. Or, it could be a strategy young raptors have evolved to be cared for by adults for longer, since large raptors tend to take up a lot of space. It is actually in the interest of growing raptors to slow the whole process down a bit. Maybe.

The large Falcons demonstrate this by having broad wings as yearlings and pointy falcony wings only in their second year. I don’t know a lot about that process, but it would be interesting to explore.

It is also interesting to note that by at least one measure of intelligence (according to Wikipedia) Falcons and Corvids are the most intelligent of birds.

Finally, while Falcons probably have a much deeper than currently appreciated evolutionary history, it does appear that they diversified during the Miocene at about the same time that grasslands became common. In this way the Falcons may join the ranks of antelopes, lions, and other grassland animals in being key species in the particular sub-age of mammals (that has no name of which I’m aware) which also includes the hominids (us). This is all poetically exemplified in the art of Falconry, of course, where the lone man stands with the lone bird on his arm on the lonely steppe/prairie/veldt seeking unwary bunnies and tasty pigeons to hunt down and kill. Truly, this is the age of the Falcon and the age of the Human. And the bunnies and pigeons are taking it in the neck.

Comments

  1. #1 dhogaza
    January 22, 2013

    We’re in the midst of a gripping revolution in the taxonomy of falconiformes, which has led some taxonomists to already adopt a massive split of the accipitridae into possible their own family. Recent DNA work makes it clear that falcons and accipipters/hawks/eagles/old-world vultures aren’t closely related, but that the two groups are the result of convergent evolution.

    I’ve captured and banded thousands of hawks and falcons, and there are notable differences. Of cousre, there’s the notched beak that many falcons use to snap the spinal cord of vertebrates. There’s the relatively weak feet. There are behavioral differences that relate to these physical differences – falcons, when trying to fight you off as you take them out of the net, bite like crazy (like the parrot relatives they appear to be). Hawks go after you with their feet and talons.

    Anyway, personally I’m excited to see what happens to the taxonomy of falcons and hawks over the next decade or so. New world vultures, of course, have been moved out of falconiformes by reasonable taxonomists some time ago …

  2. #2 dhogaza
    January 22, 2013

    sorry for the typos, it’s been a long day at my day job.

  3. #3 bks
    January 23, 2013

    What’s the largest [healthy] animal that can be killed by a falcon?

    –bks

  4. #4 dhogaza
    January 23, 2013

    Gyrfalcon’s the largest falcon (and is the falcon pictured in the post). It feeds on birds as large as geese. Gyrs, on average, are about the size and weight of a red-tailed hawk.

    The most impressive raptor kills I’ve seen were documented in a video taken in the alps. Golden eagles take chamois there. They’re far too large for a golden to take off and fly with, so what the eagles that were filmed did were to swoop down, grab one from the rocks, and parachute down to their nest, dropping the goat next to it, then landing on it and completing the kill.

    Crazy.

  5. #5 Mal Adapted
    January 23, 2013

    dhogaza:

    falcons, when trying to fight you off as you take them out of the net, bite like crazy (like the parrot relatives they appear to be).

    Falcons and parrots are related? I wonder what (if anything) the sheep-killing behavior of the kea suggests about that? Makes me wish I’d finished that Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology 8^}.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    January 23, 2013

    We will be revisiting Gold Eagles here on this blog, in a very special event, in the not too distant future. Details are Top Secret for now.

  7. #7 Darryl Green
    United States
    January 25, 2013

    Interesting article. Now I know a little more about falcons. I did not understand all that you wrote, because you use such big words… You don’t hear anything these days about falcons really.

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