The Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) is the royalty of raptors. It lives and hunts in the northern realms of our world on Arctic coasts and the islands of Europe, Asia, and North America. It is a remarkably beautiful and equally intimidating bird that is often used in the sport of falconry.
The Origin of the Gyrfalcon's Name
The first part of this raptor's name may come from the German word geier, or vulture, which would accurately describe both its intimidating size and its habit of circling its prey, though it is also believed to come from the Latin gyrus, for curved path. Its Latin scientific name is a combination of the word falco, for falcon, and rusticolus, meaning someone who lives in the country.
The Intimidating Size of the Gyrfalcon
Male Gyrfalcons, referred to as Gyrkins, average 24 inches long, weigh as much as 3 pounds, and have wingspans of 51 inches. Females are generally larger than the males, averaging 26 inches long, 4.6 pounds, and with a wingspan of 64 inches. Gyrfalcons have pointed, broad wings and longer tails than Peregrine Falcons. Plumage varies from white and silver to brown and black. White Gyrfalcons are the only predominantly white falcons. Juvenile Gyrfalcons are often darker than the adults, but the coloration of males and females does not differ according to gender. Gyrfalcons generally live to be 20 years old.
Breeding and Brooding
Gyrfalcons reach sexual maturity at three years old and mate for life. Gyrfalcons rarely build their own nests. Instead, they use a bare cliff edge, or cliff nests previously abandoned by their enemies--golden eagles and ravens. Gyrfalcons lay between one and five buff-colored eggs with brown markings. They incubate the eggs for up to 35 days. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, female Gyrfalcons have been known to catch more food than they need at the moment and will sometimes store their cache within 100 feet of their nests during breeding season. Gyrfalcon chicks leave the nest at 7 to 8 weeks and are independent of their parents within 3 to 4 months. Like many other birds, they often stay with their siblings their first winter or until they completely adjust to life on their own.
The Skillful Hunter
Gyrfalcons are large, regal birds and skillful hunters. They have a long history in their relationship with humans through the sport of falconry and their ownership was once reserved for kings. They are also expensive birds and carefully protected by their owners and breeders. According to Peregrine Fund.org, the primary diet of Gyrfalcons consists of ptarmigan and grouse, but they also eat a variety of sea and water birds, squirrels, and lemmings. They have very keen eyesight, which is helpful when hunting in arctic climes where the coloring of the wildlife often matches the surroundings. Gyrfalcons catch their prey both in the air and on the ground using a super-fast, low-flight chase. Just before the catch, they fly straight up then dive down upon their prey at extremely high speeds. The Gyrfalcon also has great stamina and will often exhaust its prey then pounce on it with tremendous power on impact, knocking its prey to the ground.
Threats to Survival
The Gyrfalcon's natural predator is the Golden Eagle, though the two rarely engage, they are simply well-matched in strength and skill. Ravens are threats to Gyrfalcons only because they like to eat Gyrfalcon eggs and hatchlings. As with most wildlife, the greatest threat to Gyrfalcons is humans through poisoning, accidents with automobiles and other machinery, hunting, and pollution created by pesticide use. Like many other large, wild birds, the Gyrfalcon was listed as "near threatened" by the IUCN until 1994 due to deaths caused by pesticides. Since that time, they have made a remarkable recovery in numbers, are no longer considered at risk, and once again roam comfortably as the kings of the sky.
- “Gyrfalcon.” Natural History Notebooks. Canadian Museum of Nature. Retrieved July 31, 2010.
- "Gyrfalcons." Peregrine Fund.org. Retrieved July 23, 2010.
- "Gyrfalcons.com." FalconsCanada.com. Retrieved July 23, 2010.
- "Gyrfalcon: Life History." All About Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved July 23, 2010.