Falcons belong to the category of birds of prey, but they exhibit distinctive characteristics that set them apart from eagles, kites, and hawks. Unlike these other raptors, falcons utilize their beaks rather than their talons to take down their prey. They also tend to be smaller, swifter, and possess longer wings, in addition to a greater inclination to hunt birds. There are seven falcon species that frequently visit the United States, but this article will focus on the three prevalent species of falcons found in Massachusetts.
3 Falcons in Massachusetts
The 3 species of falcons found in Massachusetts are the American Kestrel, Merlin and Peregrine Falcon.
Let’s take a look at each species.
1. American Kestrel
- Scientific name: Falco tinnunculus
- Length: 8.7-12.2 in
- Weight: 2.8-5.8 oz
- Wingspan: 20.1-24.0 in
The American Kestrel is North America’s smallest falcon, larger than a robin, but slightly smaller than a crow. But don’t let their small stature fool you. Kestrels are fierce predators that can take down other birds as big or bigger than they are, such as Northern Flickers.
They primarily feed on insects and invertebrates like grasshoppers, beetles, cicadas, dragonflies, moths and spiders. They also eat mice and other small rodents, bats, lizards, frogs and songbirds.
These tiny falcons have small heads and unique coloring of rusty browns and bluish grays. Both sexes have black barring on their back, and two black stripes on the face. Females are mostly rusty colored, while males have bluish-gray on their head and wings.
Look for them in the summer when they are most active. They often perch on fence posts and telephone wires, especially around farmland. Kestrels can position their body into the wind and hover in place, scanning the ground below.
The American Kestrel can be found throughout Massachusetts year-round.
- Scientific name: Falco columbarius
- Length: 9.4-11.8 in
- Weight: 5.6-8.5 oz
- Wingspan: 20.9-26.8 in
Merlins are another small falcon found in Massachusetts. However, you’ll only spot them during spring and fall migration as they pass between their breeding grounds to the north and their winter grounds to the south.
Their primary food source is other birds, such as house sparrows, dickcissels, sandpipers and other shorebirds. Merlins are experts at the high speed attack, zooming across the ground horizontally or even chasing their prey from below, forcing them higher and higher until they get tired. They have sometimes been observed hunting large flocks of birds in pairs.
Merlins are slightly larger than kestrels, with a stocky body and squarish head. They have a heavily streaked chest and belly, but their coloring can differ slightly from gray to brown due to geographic location. In flight, they are heavily barred on the underside of their wings.
Merlins are very widespread raptors and can be found in some capacity in all of North America. In the early 20th century their population was on the decline, but they have since recovered and are listed as low concern.
Merlins are usually on the move stalking sparrows and other small birds so they aren’t easy to spot. When they aren’t in flight they’re perched high in the treetops and thinking about their next meal. So keep an eye out near forest edges and on low perches in open grasslands.
3. Peregrine Falcon
- Scientific name: Falco peregrinus
- Length: 14.2-19.3 in
- Weight: 18.7-56.4 oz
- Wingspan: 39.4-43.3 in
Peregrine Falcons can be found throughout Massachusetts, but many people have the best luck spotting them along the coast. They travel through the state during migration, but some also remain year round.
Most Peregrines in the U.S. migrate far north to arctic regions of Canada and even Greenland each year to breed. Their name, “peregrine” means wanderer / pilgrim. This hints at their widespread nature, being found on early every continent world wide.
Due to pesticide poisoning, populations in eastern North America were almost totally wiped out by the middle of the 20th century. Thankfully, they have made a strong comeback.
Males and females look the same. These crow-sized falcons have a dark back and head, with a light chest and streaked underparts. They have a bright yellow coloring on their legs, around their eye and at the base of their beak.
Peregrines are not only the fastest bird, but also the fastest animals on the planet reaching speeds of well over 200 mph when diving for prey. Their prey is mainly birds, almost any species is on the menu. In urban settings, pigeons can be a large part of their diet. They also eat bats and rodents.
These falcons nest on cliff faces, even incredibly steep ones like those found in the Grand Canyon. They will also sometimes use abandoned eagle, owl or red-tailed hawk nests if there aren’t any cliffs available.