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What is a Gyrfalcon?

By Jacob Queen
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The gyrfalcon is a bird of prey that primarily lives in the arctic areas of Europe, North America and Asia. Females are about 35 percent larger than males, and they are the largest of the falcon species, weighing up to 4.5 lbs (2.0 kg), having a length of 20 to 25 inches (50 to 63 cm) and showing a wingspan of up to 4.5 feet (1.3 meters). The color of the birds can vary from almost pure white to dark gray with white streaks, and populations in different areas will generally tend towards particular color variations. The gyrfalcon is highly regarded in the sport of falconry, and in medieval times, people considered them difficult to obtain, which generally meant that kings and other noblemen were the only ones that could use them. In the northwestern territories of Canada, the gyrfalcon has been recognized as the official bird, and it was also depicted on the original coat of arms in the Icelandic Republic.

In terms of habitat, the gyrfalcon is often found in both tundra areas and along the edges of the boreal forest. They generally prefer open areas with cliffs near rivers or along the shoreline. During the harsher parts of the winter, when weather makes it difficult for them to find prey, they can sometimes migrate south looking for more abundant food sources.

Gyrfalcons have a varied diet including everything from ptarmigan to small birds, waterfowl and rabbits. When searching for prey, the birds will normally either circle the ground scanning for movement or watch while perched from a convenient lookout spot. They generally attack by flying low to the ground and chasing their prey, eventually overtaking them and diving in for the kill. Sometimes when hunting other birds, the gyrfalcon can catch them in mid-flight. Partly because of their size, gyrfalcons are believed to have no real natural predator except for the golden eagle.

Between two and three years of age, gyrfalcons become sexually mature and begin mating. The animals aren’t able to construct their own nests, and they generally use natural depressions along cliffs or take advantage of abandoned nests from other birds. Gyrfalcons normally lay between three and five eggs, which take approximately 35 days to incubate. Males and females form a pair bond, and both will incubate the eggs, with females doing more work than the males. The young birds are usually able to fly and become independent after about 50 days.

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