Ten Fun Facts About Falcons, the Birds

As the Atlanta Falcons prepare to play in the Super Bowl, learn about the remarkable raptors behind the name

Peregrine falcons are found on every continent except Antarctica (LordRunar / iStock)
smithsonian.com

They're the consummate hunters of the avian world—able to spot, chase and kill prey quietly and efficiently. They've given their name to one of the most famous Marvel superheroes, and  humans have relied on them for millennia as effective hunting partners. Now, Smithsonian.com is sharing a few facts about theperegrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) in honor of the species' coming appearance in the Super Bowl. 

1. Falcons are fast. Really fast.

Peregrine falcons have been clocked at reaching speeds of 242 miles per hour while diving for prey, making them the fastest recorded animal ever. To allow them to reach such mindblowing speeds, these birds boast aerodynamic torsos and specially pointed wings, as well as adapted cardiovascular and respiratory systems that allow them to beat their wings up to four times per second without fatiguing.

2. Humans have used falcons for hunting for thousands of years.

You may have seen artistic depictions of falconry, the art of training and using falcons to hunt small animals and birds, from the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. In fact, this collaboration is much older. Ancient artworks illustrating falconry date back at least 3,500 years to ancient Mesopotamia and Mongolia. While historically falconry was an elite and male-dominated activity, we have records of several notable women enjoying the hobby, including Queen Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great of Russia and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Falconry is still practiced worldwide today, and there is even an international association for the practice, with a membership of more than 60,000 people.

3. Falcons mate for life.

There's no playing around for these birds: Falcons devote themselves to one partner for their reproductive years. However, this doesn't mean they act like a married couple, cooking dinner and play Bingo together. Falcons only come together to mate, and otherwise spend their lives as solitary hunters.

4. They can see better than you.

Scientists estimate that falcon vision is eight times better than humans'. This allows the birds to spot small prey from nearly two miles away, and then swoop down precisely to catch it.

Evolution has worked its slow magic on the falcon eye to make it so useful. These birds have an extra eyelid that moves from side to side and is partially translucent, allowing them to see through it while still enjoying its protection. They also have a ridge over their eyes to shade them from the sun, and and special bones in their skull to keep the eyes in place when making sudden moves.

5. Falcons are not picky eaters.

You may think pigeons are resourceful when it comes to scrounging up lunch, but peregrine falcons are believed to hunt several thousand different kinds of species for food. If they can spot it and catch it, they're likely to eat it. 

6. Falcons nearly went extinct in North America.

Much like the iconic bald eagle, the peregrine falcon suffered heavily in North America from the widespread use of the pesticide DDT. The chemicals accumulated in falcons' prey, killing the adult birds and weakening the shells of their eggs. The species nearly went extinct before DDT was banned, but it has since recovered and was removed from the endangered species list in 1999.

7. They aren't just fast.

Peregrine falcons are also durable. They're thought to migrate as much as 15,500 miles a year, traveling between continents to mate or find food. Now that's dedication.

8. Falcons use their beaks as weapons.

Unlike other birds that only use sharp talons on their feet to kill prey, falcons also have a sharp tooth at the end of their beak that they can use to quickly sever necks. Watch out!

9. Do they like potatoes though?

Peregrine falcons are the "state raptor" of Idaho, and were featured prominently on the state's commemorative quarter minted in 2004. Idaho's state bird status goes to the much less-threatening mountain bluebird.

10. A high school teacher named the Atlanta Falcons.

In 1965, the new Atlanta, Georgia, football team crowdsourced name suggestions. A local high school teacher named Julia Elliott proposed the name "falcons," suggesting that it was a bird worth admiring. "The falcon is proud and dignified, with great courage and fight," Elliott wrote. "It never drops its prey. It is deadly, and has a great sporting tradition." 

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