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Gyrfalcon: Field Guide, Pictures, Habitat & Info

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Gyrfalcon

Falcons have always intrigued humans due to their hunting prowess and aerial displays. The Gyrfalcon is the largest member of the falcon family, making it a popular choice for those seeking to train these amazing birds.

As its name suggests, the Gyrfalcon is found in cold, northern regions worldwide. It is a large bird of prey commonly breeding on the tundra and Arctic coasts. Let’s learn more about this bird and its habitat.

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Quick Facts About Gyrfalcon

close up of gyrfalcon

Image By: chrisreadingfoto, Pixabay

Habitat: Arctic tundra
Diet: Avian and ptarmigan prey
Behavior: Perch on the ground and hunt birds in open countryside
Nesting: Abandoned nests made by other birds or bare cliff ledges
Conservation: Low concern
Scientific name: Falco rusticolus
Lifespan: 20 years

Gyrfalcon General Description

Gyrfalcons range in size from 18.9–25.2 inches. They weigh 800–2,100 grams and have a wingspan of 123 centimeters.

They are larger than Peregrine Falcons, while the females resemble the Red-Tailed Hawks in size. Adult Gyrfalcons have variably colored feathers.

Gray Morph Gyrfalcons have blackish-brown backs with light gray streaks. The underparts have a variable spotting of black and gray. The females are larger than the males and have thick bodies.

The classic Gyrfalcon image will show you a bird with a regal white head and tail, but there is also a dark color morph with dark chocolate brown plumage. The juvenile Gyrfalcons have heavy streaking on their bodies.

Gyrfalcon Range, Habitat, Behavior, Diet & Nesting

Since they’re the largest falcons in the world, many people are interested in Gyrfalcon facts. So here is everything you need to know:

Range

The Gyrfalcon range is spread across Alaska and Canada. Nesting on remote cliffs keeps them safe from human disturbances. However, global warming has begun to melt the ice in the Arctic, and this is causing some problems for Gyrfalcons. It’s very rare for Gyrfalcons to come to the north of the US in winter.

Habitat

Gyrfalcons go to the arctic tundra to breed. They need an open area to hunt in, so they don’t live in forests. The tundra has very little vegetation. So, the Gyrfalcon can see its prey from a long distance.

In the winter, they go to the south. They also reside in similar habitats, such as coastlines, shrub steppe, prairies, dunes, and open fields.

Behavior

Gyrfalcons hunt during the day. First, they use their keen eyesight to spot prey from a distance. Then, they stoop down on their prey at high speeds. They often hunt in pairs, with one bird distracting the prey while the other catches it. The Gyrfalcon chicks cannot eat the whole prey in a single meal. Thus, female Gyrfalcons keep the leftovers in the vegetation around the nest. When the chicks are hungry again, they can just go to the larder and eat.

Not a lot is known about how Gyrfalcons catch food outside their breeding season. In the breeding season, a single family of Gyrfalcons can eat up to three pounds of food daily. That is about three ptarmigans in a day.

The family eats about 200 ptarmigans during the courtship to fledging periods. Therefore, many other birds must be hunted and killed to raise just one family of Gyrfalcons.

Diet

Ptarmigans are the most common prey for Gyrfalcons. However, they eat other birds like ducks, geese, and small songbirds. They will also take gulls, fulmars, pheasants, auks, owls, hawks, rabbits, hares, lemmings, and voles.

Nesting

Gyrfalcons nest on cliffs near the arctic tundra. They don’t build nests. Instead, they scrape a small depression in the ground and line it with vegetation. Alternatively, they might live in nests other birds have abandoned.

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How to Find Gyrfalcons: Birdwatching Tips

When looking for Gyrfalcons, it’s important to distinguish them from Peregrine falcons. Both birds have similar sizes and shapes. However, Gyrfalcons have bulkier bodies. Their wings are also blunt-tipped.

What to Listen For

Gyrfalcons don’t have a song. However, they make a harsh “kak-kak-kak” sound. The sound is more pronounced in males when they feel alarmed.

When Gyrfalcons search for food, they make a ”chup” sound. They can repeat it 20 times or more.

The species also makes other sounds, such as:
  • Chattering
  • Wailing
  • Low whining

Males have a higher pitch than females. So, you might be able to tell them apart by their calls. When Gyrfalcons stoop to catch their prey, they make a hissing sound. That might help you find a Gyrfalcon in the process of hunting.

What to Look For

The large size of Gyrfalcons makes them easy to spot. However, they might be confused with other falcon species. So, here are some identifying features:

  • They have bulky bodies and blunt-tipped wings.
  • The plumage has variable patterns. It can be all white, mostly dark gray, or light gray with dark spots.
  • The plumage of immature Gyrfalcons is brown with pale streaks.
  • The tail is long and banded. The bands are usually black and white.

Your first instinct might be to search the skies for Gyrfalcons. However, the species forages and perches on the ground. So, look for them in open stretches of land. For example, you might find them near a shrub or a rock, where they may be sheltering or resting.

When to Look

Falcons typically are more active during dusk and dawn. That’s when there’s a high likelihood of catching prey. So, those are the best times to look for Gyrfalcons.

If you want to see Gyrfalcons during the day, your best bet is to find them near their nesting sites. The birds might be there all year round if the climate permits.

Attracting Gyrfalcons to Your Backyard: Tips & Tricks

Gyrfalcons don’t typically visit backyard bird feeders. However, you might be able to attract them by:

  • Providing a Perching Spot: Gyrfalcons like to perch in high places. So, you could try putting up a platform or a pole for them to use.
  • Providing Prey: If you live in an area where Gyrfalcons typically hunt, you could try putting out food that the birds might like to eat. It might attract them to your yard.
  • Placing the Perching Spot and Food Near Each Other: If you put the perching spot and food close together, it might be more likely that the Gyrfalcons will visit your yard.

Gyrfalcon Conservation: Is This Bird Threatened?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified Gyrfalcons as a low-concern species. It means that the species isn’t currently threatened with extinction.

However, this was not always the case. Pesticides and other pollutants lowered the number of Gyrfalcons in the mid-20th century. As a result, they were listed in the ”Near Threatened” birds. However, the improving environmental conditions in developed countries helped the population rebound.

But the rising global warming temperatures might be a new threat to the species. Climate change has started affecting the Arctic summers. Due to this, Peregrine falcons are moving to the northern regions of Greenland to increase their range.

They now compete with Gyrfalcons for food and nesting sites. The increased competition might put Gyrfalcons at risk in the future since the falcon is less conflict-averse and aggressive than its competitors.

Conclusion

The Gyrfalcons are a majestic bird species that you can find in the Arctic. They are easy to identify because of their large size and unique plumage. These birds typically hunt during dawn and dusk. Although they are not a species of concern at this point, climate change might threaten their populations in the future.


Featured Image Credit: SteveCrowhurst, Pixabay

About the Author Jeff Weishaupt

Jeff is a tech professional by day, writer, and amateur photographer by night. He's had the privilege of leading software teams for startups to the Fortune 100 over the past two decades. He currently works in the data privacy space. Jeff's amateur photography interests started in 2008 when he got his first DSLR camera, the Canon Rebel. Since then, he's taken tens of thousands of photos. His favorite handheld camera these days is his Google Pixel 6 XL. He loves taking photos of nature and his kids. In 2016, he bought his first drone, the Mavic Pro. Taking photos from the air is an amazing perspective, and he loves to take his drone while traveling.

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