Falcons and caracaras
Temporal range: 60–0 Ma (see article for discussion)
Brown Falcon
Brown Falcon
Falco berigora
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Clade: Australaves
Clade: Eufalconimorphae
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Falconidae
Vigors, 1824

The falcons and caracaras are around 60 species of diurnal birds of prey that make up the family Falconidae. The family is divided into three subfamiles. Herpetotherinae, which includes the Laughing Falcon and forest-falcons; Caracarinae, which includes the caracaras and the Spot-winged Falconet, and Falconinae, which is further divided into two tribes: Polihieracini. which includes the falconets and the Pygmy Falcon and Falconini, which includes the falcons, kestrels and the White-rumped Falcon.


Falcons and caracaras are small to medium sized birds of prey, ranging in size from the Black-thighed Falconet, which can weight as little as 35 grams (1.2 oz), to the Gyrfalcon, which can weigh as much as 1,735 grams (61.2 oz). They have strongly hooked bills, sharply curved talons and excellent eyesight. The plumage is usually composed of browns, whites, chestnut, black and grey, often with barring of patterning. There is little difference in the plumage of males and females, although a few species have some sexual dimorphism in boldness of plumage.

They differ from other Falconiformes in killing with their beaks instead of their feet. They have a "tooth" on the side of their beak for the purpose.

In contrast to accipitrids, falcons moult their feathers, starting with the fourth-outermost primaries. Falcons also have a reinforcement to the thorax, a short neck, and a special syrinx. They converged more to resemble owls than accitrids.

Distribution and habitat

The family has a cosmopolitan distribution across the world, absent only from the densest forest of central Africa, some remote oceanic islands, the high Arctic and Antarctica. Some species have exceptionally wide ranges, particularly the cosmopolitan Peregrine Falcon, which ranges from Greenland to Fiji and has the widest natural breeding distribution of any bird. Other species have more restricted distributions, particularly island endemics like the Mauritius Kestrel. Most habitat types are occupied, from tundra to rainforest and deserts, although they are generally more birds of open country and even forest species tend to prefer broken forest and forest edges. Some species, mostly in the genus Falco, are fully migratory, with some species summering in Eurasia and wintering entirely in Africa, other species may be partly migratory. The Amur Falcon has one of the longest migrations, moving from East Asia to southern Africa.[1]


Diet and feeding

File:Laughing Falcon.png

Falcons and caracaras are carnivores, feeding on birds, small mammals, reptiles, insects and carrion. In popular imagination the falconids are fast flying predators, and while this is true of the genus Falco and some falconets other species, particularly the caracaras are more sedentary in their feeding. The forest falcons of the Neotropics are generalist forest hunters. Several species, particularly the true falcons, will stash food supplies in caches.[2] They are solitary hunters and pairs guard territories, although they may form large flocks during migration. Some species are specialists, the Laughing Falcon specialises in snakes, others are more generalist.


File:Falco vespertinus.png

The falcons and caracaras are generally solitary breeders, although around 10% of species are colonial, for example the Red-footed Falcon.[3] They are monogamous, although some caracaras may also employ alloparenting stratergies, where younger birds help adults (usually their parents) in raising the next brood of chicks. Nests are generally not built (except by the caracaras), but are co opted from other birds, for example Pygmy Falcons nest in the nests of weavers, or on the ledges on cliffs. Around 2-4 eggs are laid, and mostly incubated by the female. Incubation times vary from species to species and are correlated with body size, lasting 28 days in smaller species and up to 35 days in larger species. Chicks fledge after 28–49 days, again varying with size.

Relations with humans

Falcons and caracaras have a complicated relationship with humans. In ancient Egypt they were deified in the form of Horus, the Sky and Sun God, and was the ancestor of the Pharaohs. Caracaras also formed part of the legends of the Aztecs, and are today the national emblems of Mexico. Falcons were important in the (formerly often royal) sport of falconry. They have also been persecuted for their predation on game and farm animals, and that persecution has led to the extinction of at least one species, the Guadalupe Caracara. Several insular species have declined dramatically, none more so than the Mauritius Kestrel, which at one time numbered no more than four birds. Around five species of falcon are considered vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN, including the Saker Falcon.

Taxonomy and systematics

See also: List of Falconidae Traditionally, all the raptors were grouped into 4 families in the single order Falconiformes, but many thought this group to be paraphyletic and not to share a common ancestor to the exclusion of all other birds.

First, multiple lines of evidence in the 1970s and 1980s suggested that the New World vultures Cathartidae were closer related to storks and herons (Ciconiiformes), though more recent place them outside that group as well. Consequently, New World vultures are now often raised to the rank of an independent order Cathartiformes not closely associated with either birds of prey or storks or herons.[4] In 2007 the American Ornithologists' Union's North American checklist moved Cathartidae back into the lead position in Falconiformes, but with an asterisk that indicates it is a taxon "that is probably misplaced in the current phylogenetic listing but for which data indicating proper placement are not yet available".[5]

In Europe, it has become common to split the remaining raptors into two: the falcons and caracaras remain in the order Falconiformes (about 60 species in 4 groups), and the remaining 220-odd species (including the AccipitridaeTemplate:Spaced ndash eagles, hawks, Old World vultures, etc.) are put in the separate order Accipitriformes. An unplaced prehistoric family known only from fossils are the Horusornithidae.

In agreement with the split of Falconiformes and Accipitriformes, comparative genome analysis published in 2008 suggested that falcons are more closely related to the parrots and passerines than to other birds including the Accipitridae, so that the traditional Falconiformes are paraphyletic even if the Cathartidae are excluded.[6]. Indeed, a 2011 analysis of transposable element insertions shared between the genomes of falcons, passerines, and parrots, but not present in the genomes of other birds, confirmed that falcons are a sister group of the combined parrot/passerine group, together forming the clade Eufalconimorphae.[7]

The clade Falconidae is compound by the groups Polyborinae and Falconinae. The first contains It contains the caracaras, forest falcons, and Laughing Falcon. All species in this group are native to the Americas.[8] The composition of Falconidae is disputed, and Polyborninae is not featured in the American Ornithologists' Union checklists for North and South American birds. The Check-list of North American Birds considers the Laughing Falcon a true falcon (Falconinae) and replaces Polyborinae with Caracarinae and Micrasturinae.[9] On the other hand, the Check-list of South American Birds classifies all caracaras as true falcons and puts the Laughing Falcon and forest falcons into the subfamily Herpetotherinae.[10]

On the other hand, Falconinae, in its traditional classification, contains the falcons, falconets, and pygmy falcons.[11] Depending on the authority, Falconinae may also include the caracaras and/or the Laughing Falcon.[12][13]

Fuchs et al. (2015) calibrated their trees based on two fossils. They found that falconids date back to the Oligocene.[14] The crown groups of Psittaciformes and Passeriformes are much older. If falcons are corrected placed as sister to parrots and passerines, they must have originated in the Early Eocene or more likely the Paleocene, perhaps 50-60 million years ago (some estimates make them even older).[15] Yet only one lineage from the Oligocene is the ancestor of all the extant falconids, with those lineages from 20-30 mya becoming extinct. However, falconiform fossil records are sparse.[15]

Fuchs et al. (2015) found that the two species of Polihierax are not closely related, with the Pygmy Falcon closer to Microhierax and the White-rumped Falcon nearer Falco.[14]

Genera in TiF order

Phylogeny of the falcons is based on Fuchs et al. (2015).[14]

Species of Herpetotheres in TiF order


Common name Ref (intentionally left blank) (intentionally left blank)

 sub. Herpetotherinae
Laughing Falcon TiF

Laughing Falcon

Herpetotheres cachinnans
(Linnaeus, 1758)

Lower risk,
Status iucn3.1 LC

Species of Micastur in TiF order
Forest-falcon TiF

Buckley's Forest-Falcon

Micrastur buckleyi

Lower risk,
Status iucn3.1 LC


Collared Forest-Falcon

Micrastur semitorquatus

Halcón del bosque de collar

Lower risk,
Status iucn3.1 LC


Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon

Micrastur mirandollei




Barred Forest-Falcon

Micrastur ruficollis




Cryptic Forest-Falcon

Micrastur mintoni




Plumbeous Forest-Falcon

Micrastur plumbeus




Lined Forest-Falcon

Micrastur gilvicollis



Species of Spiziapteryx in TiF order


Common name Ref (intentionally left blank) (intentionally left blank)
Spot-winged Falconet TiF

Spot-winged Falconet

Spiziapteryx circumcincta

Spiziapteryx circumcincta 1862

Spiziapteryx circumcincta distribution map



Species of Polihierax in TiF order


Common name Ref (intentionally left blank) (intentionally left blank)

Family: Falconidae

  • Genus Daptrius – Black Caracara
  • Genus Ibycter – Red-throated Caracara (sometimes included in Daptrius)
  • Genus Phalcoboenus (4 species)
  • Genus Caracara – crested caracaras (2 living species, 1 extinct)
  • Genus Milvago – brown caracaras (2 species)
  • Genus Herpetotheres – Laughing Falcon
  • Genus Micrastur – forest falcons (7 species)
  • Genus Spiziapteryx – Spot-winged Falconet
  • Genus Polihierax – pygmy falcons (2 species, includes Neohierax)
  • Genus Microhierax – typical falconets (5 species)
  • Genus Falco – true falcons, hobbies and kestrels (around 37 species)

Fossil genera

External links


  1. ^ Tordoff, Andrew (2002). "Raptor migration at Hoang Lien Nature Reserve, northern Vietnam" (pdf). Forktail. 18: 45–48. 
  2. ^ Collopy, M.W. (1977). "Food Caching by Female American Kestrels in Winter". Condor. 79 (1): 63–68. JSTOR 1367531. doi:10.2307/1367531. 
  3. ^ Ille, R.; Hoi, H.; Grinschgl, F.; Zink, F. (2002). "Paternity assurance in two species of colonially breeding falcon: the kestrel Falco tinnunculus and the red-footed falcon Falco vespertinus". Etologica. 10: 11–15. 
  4. ^ e.g. Ericson et al., Diversification of Neoaves: integration of molecular sequence data and fossils, Biol Lett. 2007 Jun 22;3(3):257-9.
  5. ^ American Ornithologists' Union (2009) Check-list of North American Birds, Tinamiformes to Falconiformes 7th Edition.
  6. ^ Hackett et al. 2008.
  7. ^ Suh A, Paus M, Kiefmann M; et al. (2011). "Mesozoic retroposons reveal parrots as the closest living relatives of passerine birds". Nature Communications. 2 (8): 443–8. PMC 3265382Freely accessible. PMID 21863010. doi:10.1038/ncomms1448. 
  8. ^ Myers, P. R.; C. S. Parr; T. Jones; G. S. Hammond; T. A. Dewey. "Subfamily Polyborinae (caracaras and forest falcons)". Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan. Retrieved 2009-08-15.  Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthors= (help)
  9. ^ "Check-list of North American Birds". North American Classification Committee. American Ornithologists' Union. Retrieved 2009-08-15. 
  10. ^ "A classification of the bird species of South America". South American Classification Committee. American Ornithologists' Union. Retrieved 2009-08-15.  This link is dead.
  11. ^ Myers, P. R.; C. S. Parr; T. Jones; G. S. Hammond; T. A. Dewey. "Subfamily Falconinae (falcons)". Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan. Retrieved 2009-08-17.  Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthors= (help)
  12. ^ "A classification of the bird species of South America". South American Classification Committee. American Ornithologists' Union. Retrieved 2009-08-17.  This link is dead.
  13. ^ "Check-list of North American Birds". North American Classification Committee. American Ornithologists' Union. Retrieved 2009-08-17. 
  14. ^ a b c Fuchs, J., J.A. Johnson, and D.P. Mindell (2015), Rapid diversification of falcons (Aves: Falconidae) due to expansion of open habitats in the Late Miocene, Mol. Phylogenet. Evol. 82, 166-182.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Boyd, John. "falconidae". Retrieved March 12, 2016. 
  16. ^ Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Herpetotheres
  17. ^ PVPH 465: a phalanx 1 of the middle toe. A caracara? Possibly belongs in extant genus (Kramarz et al. 2005).


  • Kramarz, Alejandro: Garrido, Alberto; Forasiepi, Analía; Bond, Mariano & Tambussi, Claudia (2005): Estratigrafía y vertebrados (Aves y Mammalia) de la Formación Cerro Bandera, Mioceno Temprano de la Provincia del Neuquén, Argentina. Revista geológica de Chile 32(2): 273-291. HTML fulltext

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