As I walk up the dry road of the former gravel pit near my home and start to go around and through the small hollow between sparsely covered hillocks, dark shadows swoop overhead and dart low and fast in a space maybe 30 feet wide. All the while the “kik, kik, kik” of bird calls echo off the hills. There is always more than one dark, fast shadow and when I see and hear them, I feel the immediate need to duck and cover and run--even though I know the prairie falcons aren’t after me, they're after ground squirrels!
Prairie falcons are drawn to rimrock country. They travel great distances in search of prey. The pit near my house is their practice ground. They hunt where ground squirrels are abundant. They like low and sparse vegetation when they hunt. Like a strafing airplane, prairie falcons pursue at full speed in the hopes of catching a ground squirrel or rodent before it darts back into the den. That’s the scenario I have come upon many times during my walks. The pit is the place where the parents teach their fledglings to hunt and to maneuver with speed. Every year, the fledglings get their startling and exciting practice done in the pit and, though it may not be the exact same family of falcons, I like to think it's the same family because it makes me feel more connected to them!
Every spring, in a red rock canyon near Tumalo, the prairie falcons come back to their nest. They occupy a nest on a cliff face, roughly 50 feet up on a protected outcrop, in the narrowest part of the canyon. Prairie falcons do not build nests of their own, they use recesses in rock and other bird’s nests. There comes a time every spring when they come back and that’s when I stop my canyon walking until late summer. I don’t want to bother them, even though they don’t care about bothering me! I have been in the canyon many times and have been caught unprepared for the verbal falcon warnings and swooping chasing wing beats that encourage me to leave the area…. IMMEDIATELY.
Adult prairie falcons (Falco mexicanus) are sandy-brown above and off-white with variable streaking below. The chest is whitish with brown spots and bars. Adult prairie flacons have a dark mustache streak below the eye and dark armpits. Adults are medium sized, about the same size as a crow, approximately 16 inches tall, with a wingspan of 40 inches and a weight of about 1 ½ pounds. The young falcons are similar to the adults without spots or bars. Prairie falcons have long pointed wings, and it’s these wings that can help novices like me distinguish the prairie falcon from its nearest relative, the Peregrine falcon. Prairie falcons have a long tail in proportion to their size. They have shallow, flat wing beats. They hunt ground squirrels and birds and rodents and lizards and insects, which doesn’t sound too tasty to me, but I am sure for these speedy birds it’s just right!
Thanks to the Birds of Oregon, by Marshall, Hunter and Contreras for help in learning more about prairie falcons.