According to the British Ornolothologists Union, there are 574 species of bird in Britain. Fifteen species in Britain are classed as birds of prey, but there are only four falcon species in Britain.
The four species of falcon that live in Britain are the Hobby, Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine. All have different appearances and habits and can co-exist due to different lifestyles.
In this article, I look at what a falcon is and explain the four different types of falcon found in Britain today.
What is a falcon?
Falcons are birds of prey that fly at high speed and can change direction quickly. Some are more powerful than others, with the largest species having long, broad wings that they use to soar while searching for prey. The kestrel is our only bird of prey that can hover while looking for food. Falcons with pointed wings are built for chasing and performing dives to catch their prey.
They have excellent vision, which they use to hunt their prey, with some species up to two and a half times as good as ours.
Falcons are carnivores and will feed on voles, mice, rats, insects, birds, and shrews. They have hooked beaks and sharp talons, which they use to tear their food. All falcons have three toes pointing forward with one pointing backwards, allowing them to grip their food.
Falcons kill their prey by biting the back of the neck. Although birds do not have teeth, they have an upper mandible that fits into a notch on the lower. While not a tooth, this ‘tomial tooth’ allows them to finish their prey quickly.
Do you know how to identify British birds of prey? Find out here
The Hobby is a slimmer, smaller version of the Peregrine falcon, with both males and females measuring 33-34cm long. The hobby has a short tail with narrow, long wings.
Adult Hobbys are streaked white underneath with grey above. Similar in shape to Peregrines, they can be distinguished by having streaks instead of barring underneath. Their under-tail and legs have a brown chestnut colour. They have a yellow bill and white cheeks.
Juveniles are dark brown rather than grey above and are streaked below but do not have brown legs. The legs are the easiest way to distinguish the Hobby from the Peregrine. Both males and females are the same colour.
The Hobby can be found around open woodland, farmland, wetland, and grassland. Once confined to the south of Britain, the hobby can now be found almost everywhere in England and is expanding into Scotland.
Their diet consists of dragonflies that they catch in flight and fast-moving birds such as swifts and swallows.
The Kestrel is similar in size to the Hobby, although females are slightly larger than males at 28cm in length. They can be distinguished from the Hobby has a longer tail and shorter wings.
Kestrels do not catch their food while flying and prefer to eat a diet of mice, voles, birds, shrews, and invertebrates.
The Kestrel can be spotted quite easily as they are the only British bird that can hover effortlessly. While some other birds of prey can hover, none of them can do it for as long as the Kestrel.
Males have grey heads and tails, red-spotted backs, and white spotted undersides. Females have different plumage than males. Females lack the reddish back. Instead, it is brown and barred with lighter barred underparts. Females also have a barred tail, something that males don’t. Juveniles look like females, although slightly darker brown.
Kestrels can be found in various habitats, including farmland, bog and marsh areas, heath, and urban areas. Because of their feeding habits, kestrels have the most extensive range of nesting sites in Britain. However, they don’t like areas of forests or mountains.
Do you know how kestrels hunt? Find out in this article I wrote
Merlins are the smallest falcons and the smallest bird of prey in Britain. Merlins measure on average 28cm long, although males are smaller than females.
The Merlin is an aerial predator whose body is shaped to support this. They have a long tail and are shaped between a Hobby and a Kestrel.
They feed on small birds, which they chase while low to the ground. If you see a bird of prey hunting another bird close to the ground in Britain, then you are probably looking at a Merlin.
Males have blue-grey upper parts and creamy-white undersides that are streaked. Females have different colours above, with some being dark brown, much like the juveniles.
Merlins like open spaces with low ground cover. They can be found near coasts and live among heaths and bogs, although they prefer to confine themselves to the uplands. They are widely distributed, but the southwest is where most of the breeding pairs of Merlins are.
Do you know where falcons go in winter? Find out here.
The Peregrine is the largest British falcon measuring about 47cm in length, although males are slightly smaller at 43cm.
They are among the most accomplished fliers in Britain and are known for their amazing dives to catch prey, reaching over 160km.
Adults have bluish-grey upperparts, with cream underparts that are barred. Males and females have similar plumage, making it harder to tell them apart. They have a dark moustache below the eye, different in every Peregrine.
Juveniles are similar in colour, although the moustache is less obvious, and the feathers are slight browner. Adults have yellow legs while juveniles transition from grey to yellow over time.
Peregrines will eat a diet of medium-sized birds such as ducks and pigeons.
The distribution of Peregrines in Britain has got much wider, and they can be found around rocky sea cliffs. Peregrines try to stay near shorelines in winter to find food, but in summer can be found among upland and mountainous areas.
Do you know what falcons eat? Find out in this article I wrote.