The very word falcon conjures up images of speed and danger so it’s no surprise it’s been used in popular culture. From the 1940s private eye drama, The Maltese Falcon, to the fastest ship in the Star Wars universe, The Millennium Falcon, the name of these birds brings instant ‘cool’.
In reality, falcons are small birds of prey with pointed wings and tails. Some are small enough to hover in search of prey whilst others are fleet and agile flyers. They’re a diverse group containing 39 different species. Four of these species can be found in Britain, so let’s have a look at our native cool customers…
The Merlin – This is the UK’s smallest bird of prey; smaller even than a sparrow hawk. Because it’s so light, the merlin can hover by flapping its wing rapidly, allowing it to seek out prey on the ground below. You might think that this almost magical ability gave rise to their name (Merlin was a legendary wizard) but in fact it comes from the Anglo-Norman word, merilun, which means ‘small hawk’
The Hobby – Similar in appearance to an oversized swift, the hobby is a fast flyer that catches its prey (usually small birds like swallows) in mid-flight. A real aerobat, the hobby is capable of sudden acceleration and can change course at high speed. The bird’s name comes from Old French, hobet, meaning ‘buzzard like’. In the Middle Ages the hobets, or hobbies, became popular with falconers and the word ‘hobby’, came to mean ‘pastime’
The Kestrel – These are quite common and most of us will have seen one. They are a familiar sight hovering above roadside verges on the lookout for small mammals like mice. They’re adaptable birds and can be found on farmland and even in urban areas. Their name comes from cresserele, the Old French for ‘rattle’, though I prefer their Middle English name, the ‘windhover’
The Peregrine – Finally we come to this large and strong falcon. Their size gives them the strength to chase medium-sized birds, like pigeons. Indeed, their taste for racing pigeons has led to persecution by pigeon fanciers. Peregrines are protected by law but their numbers are very low. The name peregrine comes from the Latin for ‘foreign’, though why they should be called that is uncertain – they are native to all Western Europe
If you are interested in birds of prey then have a look at this quiz. It’s one of our 60 free-to-play nature quizzes. See if you can spot any falcons in there. And then why not browse the RSPB website? It has lots of facts about falcons and other British birds. Well worth a visit.