College of Veterinary Medicine |

Healthy Animals, Healthy People, Healthy Planet


Radar is a male gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus), pronounced "jeer-falcon," and prairie falcon (Falco mexicanus) hybrid.  Unlike all of the other birds in the club, Radar was born in captivity. For the first ten years of his life, he was owned and flown by a devoted falconer, but in 2008 was attacked by another bird being kept by the falconer at the time. The other bird attempted to pull Radar underneath the door of his enclosure, in the process scalping Radar and damaging his right wing severely enough that he can no longer fly well enough to hunt. The falconer, unable to give him the care he now requires, surrendered him to the club.
Hybrid falcons are exceptionally rare in the wild, although they have been spotted occasionally. Much more commonly, hybrids are a result of humans crossing two species for use in the hunting sport of falconry, which is the act of catching live prey using trained raptors. Hybrids are most often made in an attempt to maximize traits specific to different species, such as speed, loyalty, size, hardiness, and the passion to pursue and hunt.
Prairie falcons are native to the western part of North America, and are close in size to the peregrine falcon. They can be easily distinguished from peregrines, as prairie falcons are a sandy brown on the back, and the same sandy color mottled with white on their fronts, while peregrines are a distinctive blue-gray color.  In flight, a distinctive dark "wing pit" area distinguishes prairie falcons from the others. Like all falcons, prairies have malar stripes, long pointed wings, dark eyes, a falcon’s tooth on each side of the beak, and specialized bones in the nostril that assist with breathing during dives.
Prey consists of birds, which are caught in midair, and small mammals.  Prairie falcons are highly versatile hunters, and will attack in several different ways at many different kinds of prey. Their hunting style is primarily to skim at high speed roughly about a meter from the ground, hoping to flush quarry, which they will then pursue using a range of attack styles. Like the peregrine falcon, they can attack from a stoop dive, but this is less common.
Prairie falcons nest on flat ledges in medium to high cliff faces, which they prefer to be facing south or southwest.  When looking for prairie falcons, the presence of whitewash (from the mutes, or feces, of the bird) on the cliff face and blowflies (accumulated around discarded food) will indicate birds in residence.
Gyrfalcons are the largest falcon in the world, comparable in size to large red-tailed hawks, and can be found in the northern and near-arctic parts of the US and Canada, Europe and Asia.  Like many other raptor species, gyrfalcons can be variable in coloration, some individuals being nearly black and others nearly white.  More commonly, they are a heavily spotted dark gray down the back with dark gray speckles on the front. The farther north they are found, the lighter in color they tend to be.  
Gyrfalcons prefer to live in open tundra and mountains, with a few trees and cliffs. They prefer to hunt in open areas with a few trees, and typical quarry consists of medium sized birds such as ptarmigan, grouse, pheasants, ducks, and geese, although they can and will take rabbits and snowshoe hares in a pinch. They are extremely tenacious hunters, and will chase their quarry upwards of several miles before giving up. 
Gyrfalcons are one of the most traditional birds used in falconry, and are the most highly prized, both in days past and today. They were so valuable that they were given as gifts to heads of states and kings, and were used to pay ransom on kidnapped nobles. For example:  during the crusades in 1396, the Duke of Burgundy's son was ransomed for twelve Greenland gyrfalcons; also during the crusades, King Richard the Lionhearted took his birds with him, and when he was captured part of his ransom was two of his white gyrfalcons. Gyrfalcons were and are prized for their size, ability and willingness to take large and useful prey, and their sheer power and beauty.

Washington State University