Falcon, a bird of prey. Falcons are commonly called hawks, but they differ from true hawks in several ways. The wings of falcons are long and pointed instead of short and rounded, and the upper part of the bill is notched instead of smooth. There are more than 60 species of falcons. The birds are found in all habitable parts of the earth.

GyrfalconsGyrfalcons are the largest falcons and live in the Arctic.

Falcons are strong, fierce birds with hooked bills and large feet armed with long, curved talons. Keen-eyed and swift in flight, they commonly pursue their prey—birds and small mammals—with rapid wing beats. Falcons usually nest in depressions scraped out on ledges of cliffs. Some build nests of branches and twigs in trees, and others nest in woodpecker holes. The females lay two to six eggs, usually creamy to buff and mottled with brown.

The peregrine falcon, found in most parts of the world, has long been used in falconry. It is the fastest known bird, capable of diving at about 180 miles per hour (290 km/h). The peregrine falcon grows to a length of about 20 inches (50 cm); it is bluish gray above and buff below, with black markings. There are about 15 subspecies of peregrine falcons, including the duck hawk of North America. The duck hawk is an endangered species. Its population began to decrease in the 1950's because of the effects of DDT and certain other pesticides. Since the 1970's, when these pesticides were banned, the duck hawk's population has increased somewhat. Individuals born and raised in captivity have been released into wild areas and into certain large cities, including Chicago and New York. (In cities, duck hawks nest on tall buildings.)

The peregrine falconThe peregrine falcon is the fastest known bird, capable of diving at 180 miles per hour.
Which Bird of Prey Flies the Fastest?

A peregrine (PEHR uh grihn) falcon can fly faster than almost every other kind of bird. In a dive with its wings folded, it can go nearly 200 miles (360 kilometers) per hour. When it is flapping its wings and flying straight, it can go as fast as 60 miles (96.6 kilometers) per hour.

Peregrine falcons were once the most widespread daytime birds of prey in the world. This may be because they are such good hunters. Their main prey are live birds, such as pigeons, ducks, and other water birds. A falcon perches in a high place or circles in the air. When it spots prey, the falcon makes a spectacular dive. It grabs the prey in midair with its talons.

The merlin, also called pigeon hawk, is slightly smaller than the peregrine falcon and is nearly as fast a flier. In flight, it resembles a pigeon. The pigeon hawk is slate blue above, reddish brown to buff below. The prairie falcon resembles the peregrine falcon but is paler and has black patches, visible when the bird is in flight overhead, where the wings join the body.

The largest falcons are the gyrfalcons of the Arctic; they grow to a length of 24 inches (60 cm). Some of the pygmy falcons of the tropics are less than 6 inches (15 cm) long.

Falcons belong to the falcon family, Falconidae. The peregrine falcon is Falco peregrinus; duck hawk, F. peregrinus anatum; merlin, F. columbarius; prairie falcon, F. mexicanus ; gyrfalcon, F. rusticolus.