The falconidae family consists of two distinct groups of birds, the falcons & the caracaras.
- Falcons :
The term refers to the more than 50 different species of falcon, consisting of around 35 species of True Falcon (family Falco) plus Pygmy Falcons, Forests Falcons, the Laughing Falcons & Falconets. They range in size from the sparrow sized falconets to the Gyr Falcon, which is around 2ft in height.
The word falcon derives from the Latin word "falco" meaning scimitar shaped, in reference to their wings. Falcons have long narrow wings, which are swept back from the body enabling them to fly very fast, & fairly short tail. They rely both on speed & agility to catch their prey, normally in the air. They rarely eat carrion, preferring freshly caught prey. In addition to the characteristic wings, most falcons have a notched beak (possibly a vestigial tooth, from their reptilian ancestry) which is ideally suited to breaking the neck of small prey. Many falcons also have an elongated middle toe, which is often used to facilitate holding prey in flight.
To catch their prey, falcons rely on several strategies, including low level chasing rising at the last moment to catch the prey from above, hovering (the kestrel, in particular) and stooping from above and striking the prey at speed. When using the latter method, the falcons fly high to find their prey, and then drop down towards it, often flapping their wings to increase their speed, at last moment they level off to strike the prey from behind. It was thought that just before striking, their toes are closed, bunched like a fist & brought forwards, the feet initially strike the prey & then are followed through by the very sharp hind talon. High speed photography of a peregrine striking a lure showed that the bird attacked with the toes open, striking with the back of the foot & hind talon first, with the front toes closing within milliseconds of the initial strike. Often the falcon is able to turn in flight & catch the prey before it hits the ground. If the prey is not killed outright by the feet, it is dispatched by a twist of the notched beak to the neck.
Most falcons do not build own nests, but take over disused nests of other birds, such as crows, rooks & magpies.
- Caracara :
There are about nine species of caracara, often called "carrion hawks", their South American name is Carrancha. They are found from Florida down to the Falkland Islands & Tierra del Fuego. Despite appearing totally different, they are close relations to falcons. They are characterised by their long necks & the yellow to reddish bare cheeks. They are very gregarious & aggressive, & also very intelligent.
They spend much of the time scavenging on the ground, feeding mainly on carrion. They will eat reptiles, amphibians & small birds, and smaller species will eat insects.
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