I simply cannot believe that I have not blogged about this animal yet. Gyrfalcons are my favourite bird by far, and if I ever take up falconry (one of my life goals), I’ll make sure to get a gyrfalcon. Though apparently the white gyrfalcon used to be reserved for royalty and still is considered the ‘bird of kings’ today. Also, catching gyrs from the wild is illegal, so I’ll have to find a captive bred one! I first heard of them from a book I read as a kid, I don’t remember it all that well but there were definitely some viking-like people, a girl, and a gyrfalcon. I remember the falcon most of all.
Gyrfalcons live in the arctic, spending their time in the freezing tundra and not generally going below 60 degrees of latitude. They are the largest species of falcon, and are perhaps best known for their white colour morph. I actually thought that gyrfalcons were all white, and that they either changed feather colour in the summer months or whitened with age. It turns out that there’s at least three colour morphs; white, grey and dark. The white morph is the characteristic beautiful gyrfalcon, and is found mainly in Greenland. The dark morph is usually brown and can be almost black, and is found in Northern Canada. And the grey morph is intermediate in colour and found pretty much all over the Gyrfalcon’s range.
Gyrfalcons are extremely powerful birds, being able to kill prey three times their weight. They don’t tend to catch their prey from the air, instead forcing the animal down with a single powerful blow and then pouncing on it. Gyrfalcons hunt mainly birds and small mammals, and primarily feed on ptarmigans, other raptors, ground squirrels and arctic hares. Gyrfalcons do not dive onto their prey like peregrine falcons, instead flying low to the ground and overtaking their prey. The gyrfalcon can sustain this flight for a long period of time, and sometimes wear out prey before making an easy kill.
Reproduction in gyrfalcons occurs in spring, with females arriving at nesting sites in March and laying eggs in April. The breeding season is the only time gyrfalcons spend any time together, as they are solitary for the rest of the year. I guess these guys are lazy birds, because they don’t build nests. They either steal old raven nests, or simply roost on high cliff ledges. Over time, favoured cliffs accumulate large numbers of bones and guano, so I guess it’s a kind of nest. Just not one I’d want to grow up in. But gyrfalcon chicks don’t seem to mind, and happily spend their time in the ‘nest’. An average of four chicks are born per year, and they hatch after 35 days. After about ten days the chicks have enough downy feathers to keep themselves warm, and the female can leave the nest and go hunting. Chicks are dependent on their parents for 3-4 months, at which point they leave to face the big wide world alone.
Gyrfalcons are incredible birds; they are so big they don’t have any natural predators. Humans poach them for falconry, but other than that there isn’t much of a threat to these species. Because of their remote location and consistent habitat, gyrfalcons have not been threatened with any kind of population decline, which is very good news indeed. I just thought of naming a sports team after gyrfalcons. That would be awesome!