With a whoosh, a puff of feathers was all that remained as the dove’s existence was stanched away in the talons of an aggressive, opportunistic hunter. The prairie falcon or prairie hawk, Falco mexicanus, is a bird of prey, a raptor. Their excellent eye-site allows them to spot small prey at extreme distances. Strong talloned feet and a sharp beak allow for grasping and tearing the flesh of their prey. Prairie falcons cruise at just over 45 mph, but at attack speed, from high altitude, can exceed 100 mph. The favored hunting habitats of prairie falcons include shrubby deserts, grasslands, mountain meadows and open agricultural fields. Prairie falcons can be frequently observed perched upon utility poles and lines surveying their environs for small mammals and birds to prey upon.

F. mexicanus is described as a medium-large sized falcon; about the size of a peregrine falcon, but more tubular than stocky in body. The upper back and wings are gray-brown with a lighter colored tail. From below, their lighter colored feathering is offset by a darker “armpit” streak (Photo 1.). The eyes are proportionally large for its head size while a ridge of lighter colored feathers above the eyes and a dark mustache stripe mark the face (Photo 2). Their wings are pointed. The tail is about one-third the body’s length. Males are about 15 inches in length with females averaging an additional 2 inches.

A prairie falcon displaying the darker “armpit” streak on its wing underside.

A close-up of a prairie falcon head showing large eyes, a ridge of lighter colored feathers above the eyes and a dark mustache stripe.

F. mexicanus ranges from southern western Canada south to northern Mexico. They are migratory from their northern latitudes and are altitudinal migrants in Arizona where they remain yearlong residents. Its speciation has been so precise that there hasn’t been a need to develop subspecies to accommodate survival within multiple habitats throughout its extensive range.

While cracks and depressions in cliffs and steep bluffs are preferred nesting sites, trees, utility poles, buildings and bridges will suffice.  Prairie falcon nests typically contain 2 to 6 pinkish eggs with brown, reddish-brown, and purplish speckles. Depending on ambient temperatures during the incubation, egg hatch occurs 29 and 39 days after laying. Fledgling occurs between 4 and 6.5 weeks following hatch. While the lifespan in the wild is typically 3 to 7 years, the longest lifespan for a prairie falcon in the wild was over 17 years.

The population of prairie falcons is stable. They are not considered a threatened or endangered species. For those interested in more information on the prairie falcon, conduct a web search on Falco mexicanus. For a display of raptors in free flight, plan a visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum between October 21, 2017 and March, 2018, with shows at 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.

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