Photo: Hanne & Jens Eriksen/Vireo

Gyrfalcon

Falco rusticolus

This formidable predator, the largest falcon in the world, reigns over barren tundra and desolate coasts in the high Arctic. There it preys mostly on large birds such as ptarmigan and waterfowl, overtaking them in powerful flight. Most Gyrfalcons remain in the far north all year; only a few come as far south as the Canadian border in winter, providing thrills for birders. Variable in color, Gyrs may be blackish, gray, or stunningly white.
Conservation status Has declined in parts of arctic Europe, but North American populations are probably stable. Illegal taking of young for falconry could be a problem in some areas, but most nest sites are remote from human disturbance.
Family Falcons
Habitat Arctic barrens, seacoasts, open mountains. Breeds in Arctic regions having open tundra for hunting and cliffs for nesting sites. Often occurs along coasts and rivers, where prey may be more abundant. Mostly in treeless country, but occurs along the edges of northern forest in some places. Wintering birds south of Arctic tend to be either along coast or in very open country inland.
This formidable predator, the largest falcon in the world, reigns over barren tundra and desolate coasts in the high Arctic. There it preys mostly on large birds such as ptarmigan and waterfowl, overtaking them in powerful flight. Most Gyrfalcons remain in the far north all year; only a few come as far south as the Canadian border in winter, providing thrills for birders. Variable in color, Gyrs may be blackish, gray, or stunningly white.
Photo Gallery
  • adult, gray morph
  • adult, white morph
  • juvenile
  • adult, white morph
  • juvenile
Feeding Behavior

Hunts by scanning its surroundings from a perch on a high rock, or while flying. Prey may be taken by surprise, the falcon approaching very low over the ground, or may be pursued relentlessly in flight over long distances.


Eggs

Usually 3-4, sometimes 2-5. White or creamy white, spotted with reddish-brown. Incubation is by both parents, but female does more. Young: For first 1-3 weeks, young are brooded most of time, mostly by female; male does all or most of hunting during this time, bringing food which female feeds to the nestlings. After 2-3 weeks, female hunts also. Age of young at first flight about 45-50 days.


Young

For first 1-3 weeks, young are brooded most of time, mostly by female; male does all or most of hunting during this time, bringing food which female feeds to the nestlings. After 2-3 weeks, female hunts also. Age of young at first flight about 45-50 days.

Diet

Mainly birds, some mammals. Feeds mostly on medium-sized to large birds. Ptarmigan are mainstays of diet on Arctic tundra, while coastal Gyrs may take more gulls, ducks, and geese, but numerous other species eaten on occasion. Also some mammals, including lemmings, ground squirrels, hares. Wintering birds in west have been seen taking birds as large as Sage Grouse.


Nesting

Pairs may occupy nest sites very early in season, even in late winter. Members of pair display at nest site with bowing and scraping motions; male brings food to female. Nest: Most nest sites are on cliffs, and most are on old nests built by other birds, such as ravens or Golden Eagles. Sometimes breeds on open ledges with no nest structure present, and sometimes uses old nests in trees, such as spruce or poplar (tree nesting is frequent in some areas). Does not add material to existing nests.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Many adults are permanent residents in far north, even above Arctic Circle, but many immatures move southward for winter. Northernmost adult breeders may also migrate.

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Migration

Many adults are permanent residents in far north, even above Arctic Circle, but many immatures move southward for winter. Northernmost adult breeders may also migrate.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
A chattering scream, kak-kak-kak-kak.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.

How climate change could affect this bird's range

In the broadest and most detailed study of its kind, Audubon scientists have used hundreds of thousands of citizen-science observations and sophisticated climate models to predict how birds in the U.S. and Canada will react to climate change.

Learn more

Read more: climate.audubon.org
Falcons Hawk-like Birds

Gyrfalcon

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season.

More on reading these maps.

Each map is a visual guide to where a particular bird species may find the climate conditions it needs to survive in the future. We call this the bird’s “climatic range.”

The colors indicate the season in which the bird may find suitable conditions— blue for winter, yellow for summer (breeding), and green for where they overlap (indicating their presence year-round).

The darker the shaded area, the more likely it is the bird species will find suitable climate conditions to survive there.

The outline of the approximate current range for each season remains fixed in each frame, allowing you to compare how the range will expand, contract, or shift in the future.

The first frame of the animation shows where the bird can find a suitable climate today (based on data from 2000). The next three frames predict where this bird’s suitable climate may shift in the future—one frame each for 2020, 2050, and 2080.

You can play or pause the animation with the orange button in the lower left, or select an individual frame to study by clicking on its year.

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season. More on reading these maps.
Winter
Summer

Winter Range
Summer Range
Both Seasons
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