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.