When people think of falconry, this is the group of raptors that they most often picture. In ancient times it was the falcons and their great hunting abilities that were so highly prized by royalty which lead to the popular phrase “the sport of Kings”.
Falcons are often referred to as “longwings” because of their characteristic long pointed wings. In addition, they also have narrow tails, short rounded beaks, and flat feet with relatively weak talons and long thin toes. While most falcons such as the Peregrine almost exclusively hunt birds, smaller falcons such as the American Kestrel also rely on insects and small mammals to survive. Most hunt from high soaring positions in the sky where upon sighting prey, fold their wings and dive in a “stoop” after their quarry. With stoops in excess of 180 mph the Peregrine Falcon the fastest bird in the world. In most cases the prey is knocked from the air and often killed by the impact of the falcon’s feet. Falcons also have a special notch in their upper beak that can be used to snap the vertebrae of its prey.
Today in the United States there are generally five kinds of falcons that are used in falconry. These include the American Kestrel, the Merlin, the Peregrine Falcon, the Prairie Falcon, and the Gyrfalcon.
As a group, the falcons display a larger variety of plumage than the buteos or accipiters. Colors range from the bright blues and reds of the American Kestrel to the the nearly all white plumage of the Gyrfalcon. Unlike the other groups some falcons also are sexually dimorphic which means that the adult males and females have different plumages.
In falconry, the properly trained falcon is released to establish a high position in the sky where it circles or “waits on” until the falconer or his dog flush prey from the cover below. Unlike Buteos or Accipiters, falcons are not hunted from the fist or from a perch. Hunting with falcons requires a relatively high level of maintenance and training and as a result only more experienced falconers are permitted to possess them.
Many falconers hunt with falcon hybrids acquired from commercial breeders.