The falcons and caracaras of North America include many species of birds of prey that are scientifically classified as part of the family Falconidae. Inside the Falconidae family are two subfamilies, Polyborinae and Falconinae.
The Falcons and Caracaras of North America include 17 different species of birds of prey that are scientifically classified as part of the family Falconidae.
The Polyborinae sub-family includes what is commonly known as Caracaras and Forest Falcons, whose territory mainly ranges from the southern United States through Central America. Many of these species are scavengers, but a few actively hunt for food.
The Falconinae sub-family includes what is commonly known as True Falcons, Hobbies, Falconets, and Kestrels. Their territory primarily ranges from above the Arctic Circle through Mexico and Central America. Unlike many species of Caracara, the Falconinae are active hunters.
The 17 species of falcons and caracaras in North America are as follows:
Polyborinae – Caracaras and Forest Falcons
- Northern Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway)
- Red-Throated Caracara (Ibycter americanus)
- Black Caracara (Daptrius ater)
- Yellow-Headed Caracara (Milvago chimachima)
- Slaty-backed Forest Falcon (Micrastur mirandollei)
- Collared Forest Falcon (Mircrastur semitorquatus)
Falconine – True Falcons, Kestrels, and Falconets
- Laughing Falcon (Herpetotheres cachinnans)
- Red-Footed Falcon (Falco vespertinus)
- American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)
- Aplomado Falcon (Falco femoralis)
- Merlin (Falco columbarius)
- Bat Falcon (Falco rufigularis)
- Orange-Breasted Falcon (Falco deiroleucus)
- Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus)
- Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus)
- Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
- Peale’s Falcon (Falco peregrinus pealei)
Overall, the Falconidae family is distinguished by its members having small to medium-sized bodies, short aquiline beaks, sharply curved talons, excellent eyesight, and slender, tapered wings. The Arctic-dwelling Gyrfalcon is the largest North American species, with females averaging a little over 3 pounds 8 ounces (1,585 grams). The smallest is the American kestrel, whose weight can range from 3.8 to 5 ounces (86 to 165 grams).
Unlike other birds of prey (like hawks, owls, and eagles), falcons use their tomial tooth, a triangular tooth on the underside of their top beak, to kill their prey. The tooth bites into the neck, severing the spinal cord.
These various species, however, have very different hunting behaviors. For example, the Northern Crested Caracara is a scavenger that will hunt injured or young amphibians, fish, turtles, and reptiles. The Black Caracara are opportunistic eaters, chasing birds, reptiles, and insects, but will search for fruit and nuts. Finally, the Peregrine Falcon hunts in a typical near-vertical dive-bombing fashion, reaching speeds from 200 to 240 miles per hour.
As with other birds of prey, falcons and caracaras exhibit sexual dimorphism — with the females of most species being larger than males. It is known that male Prairie Falcons provide food to females and young during some of the nesting seasons — and male Peregrines attract mates through elaborate flight patterns. These may be reasons why the females of some falcon species are larger.
In conclusion, North America has a wide variety of falcon and caracara species. They vary in diet, appearance, size, and breeding behaviors, but their fundamental features and genetics make them inherently related.
I recommend the following field guides for more information on falcons, caracaras, and other North American birds.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.