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Falcon has its share of fans

By Staff | Feb 15, 2008

Dr. Ross Dirks shows off a peregrine falcon to Estherville Lincoln Central third-graders on Thursday. EDN photo by Michael Tidemann

What can go 260 miles an hour, eats meat, and can kill and eat something more than twice its size?

If you’ve ruled out every NFL team you’ve seen this season, you’re right.

Actually, it’s a peregrine falcon.

Dr. Ross Dirks made a big splash when he brought his peregrine falcon for Estherville Lincoln Central third-graders to see on Thursday.

Dr. Dirks, who volunteers his time for the Orphaned and Injured Wildlife organization, explained the difference between different birds prey such as hawks, falcons, eagles, and owls. While owns are nocturnal, hawks, falcons, and eagles are diurnal, meaning they hunt during the day.

Hawks and falcons have some major differences too. In addition to being larger, hawks have rounded wings while falcons have pointed wings, which might explain their terrific speed. Even their eye color is different. Hawks have light eyes while falcons have much darker eyes. Both have hooked bills, but falcons have a notched bill which lets them kill by breaking smaller birds’ necks.

Females are larger than males for both hawks and falcons, a result of reverse sexual dimorphism.

Dr. Dirks said falcons nest on existing structures such as tall buildings and cliffs. In fact, they’re making quite a comeback in cities such as Des Moines where they’ve built nests on skyscrapers.

Kestrals, the smallest falcons, not much larger than a dove, nest in cavities and are the most common type of falcon.

Red-tailed hawks and Coopers hawks are more common in our area, Dr. Dirks said. He said red-tailed hawks have a light-colored chest. Coopers hawks perch in dense trees. People who call him about a hawk eating smaller birds are usually talking about a Coopers Hawk, he said.

As a sport, falconry goes back at least 400 years when both falcons and hawks were used to hunt game. When gunpowder was invented, it was easier to shoot game, so falconry became more of a sport than for hunting. Much of falconry’s resurgence now has to do with a greater interest in nature, Dr. Dirks said.

Dr. Dirks’ falcon that he showed students Thursday was raised in captivity. He has also trained birds though that he captured in the wild.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources issues permits for those who want to use falcons or hawks to hunt. A person first has to undergo training and buy all the necessary equipment and get a sponsor before receiving a permit, Dr. Dirks said.

Dr. Dirks showed how falcons wear a hood when not hunting. That’s to help calm them when they’re around people.

A peregrine can take game as large as a 5-pound sage grouse, quite a feat for a bird weighing less than two pounds.

Dr. Dirks uses radio telemetry to track his falcon in flight. That’s an important tool in preventing the loss of one of these incredibly intelligent birds.

The increased interest in falconry parallels the resurgence in numbers of falcons, Dr. Dirks said. Falcon numbers declined severely in the 1940s due to use of the pesticide DDT which caused breakage of falcon eggs. There were virtually no falcons in the eastern United States except for a nest in northeastern Iowa along the banks of the Mississippi in 1954.

The Peregrine Fund was formed to bring the falcon back. Members gathered falcons and bred them in captivity. Flight-ready falcons were then left in boxes on cliffs and on buildings with food. As they learned to hunt, they gained independence and by 1999 peregrines were no longer endangered.

Today, there are more peregrine falcons than during prehistoric times, Dr. Dirks said. They have found habitat in such far-ranging places as skyscrapers and on those same cliffs on the upper Mississippi where the last breeding pair was seen in 1954. Now 70 pairs of falcons range the Upper Mississippi.