Arkansas is a land of alluvial plains, ridges, mountains, and valleys. There are its fertile lowlands of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, also known as the Delta. There are also the lowlands of the south and southwest filled with pine forests and cultivated fields and the Ouachita Mountains at its west and center.
Last of all comes the Ozark Mountain region known for its steep valleys and its forest cover and the Arkansas River Valley to the south.
Unsurprisingly, these varied landscapes are rather attractive to some of the most adaptable forms of wildlife: those of the avian species.
There are 424 species of birds in Arkansas. Five of them belong to that select group of raptors that have a habit of dispatching their prey with their beaks as opposed to their claws. Here is all you need to know about falcons in Arkansas in a nutshell.
- Scientific Name: Falco sparverius
- Length: 8.7 – 12.2 inches
- Weight: 2.8 – 5.8 ounces
- Wingspan: 20 – 24 inches
Members of this species are the smallest falcons found in North America.
Their beaks display the characteristic tooth (tomial tooth) in their upper mandibles and the corresponding notch in their lower jaws.
Sexual dimorphism is evident in this species with males being smaller and covered in plumage which is a dark tan at their upper surfaces, a pale tan at their chests, and fades to white toward their vents.
Their plumage also exhibits a barred pattern with black while their wings are a slate gray and their tails are russet.
Female American kestrels are generally a more consistent color with upper surfaces and wings which are a rufous or dark brown color. Their under surfaces may be pale and covered in brown streaks.
The crowns of both genders are covered in a characteristic gray cap at their crowns and their pale faces are marked with thick dark vertical bands.
Breeding season for American kestrels falls between March and June. This species does not build any nests, finding those built by corvids rather suitable. American kestrels also prefer cavities hollowed out by large woodpeckers. They may even decide to raise their families in buildings that have comfy recesses and crannies.
Females eventually lay about 4 or 5 eggs which are white or light brown and also speckled with brown. They are also responsible for the bulk of incubation duties, which last about a month. They also remain with her hatchlings for the first two weeks after they emerge, while their mate feeds the entire family. The new chicks eventually get to try their wings when they are about a month old.
American kestrels tend to be rather vocal during breeding season, emitting a series of high-pitched sounds. Males offer females gifts of food during courtship.
Members of the species tend to survey their surroundings from the comfort of a perch, taking off when they observe the presence of prey.
Alternatively, they may hover over an area and beat their wings in quick succession while searching for prey.
American kestrels generally prefer their own company, but may however opt for migrating in the company of groups as large as eight individuals.
Habitat and Distribution
American kestrels prefer locations that provide a combination of open spaces and lofty perches. Hence they can be found in deserts, cultivated fields, and even forest glades.
They are also quite at home in cities and can be found throughout Arkansas all year round.
- Scientific Name: Caracara plancus
- Length: 20 – 26 inches
- Weight: 2.0 – 3.5 pounds
- Wingspan: 47 – 52 inches
Crested caracaras are covered in dark brown plumage from head to thighs. The only exceptions are their red, bare faces, their white throats, their barred napes, and their white undertail coverts.
The tuft of feathers covering their crowns is rather luxuriant and dark. Their legs are yellow ending in wide-spread toes of the same hue, while their powerful beaks are gray.
Breeding season for crested caracaras begins with the advent of the dry season. Members of this species are skilled at building nests – a quality that separates them from other members of their large family which are rather lacking in this regard.
Both parents share nest-building and brooding duties. The species typically produces 2 to 3 pale brown eggs covered in dark brown blotches.
The young fledge after about a period of two months. However, crested caracaras continue to feed their young for several months afterward (young fledglings have also been observed pursuing their parents in the hopes of persuading them to leave a tasty morsel or two).
Members of this species are known to be rather fond of roadkill. They are not averse to congregating with vultures at mealtimes and also fly over cleared or burnt fields in search of small animals.
Although they spend most of their time perching, crested caracaras actively search for food at dawn and late in the afternoon.
These raptors are also kleptoparasitic and are not above pilfering a meal from another bird, if they can help it.
In spite of that last quality, they are rather gregarious by nature.
Habitat and Distribution
These raptors, which tend to spend more time on the ground compared to other falcons, prefer to live in open areas, including deserts and grassland.
They can be found close to roads or hovering over fields in search of a meal.
Crested caracaras are rarely found in Arkansas but can be found in Florida, Texas, and Arizona, as well as Mexico to the south.
- Scientific Name: Falco columbarius
- Length: 9 – 12 inches
- Weight: 4.5 – 8.3 ounces
- Wingspan: 21 – 27 inches
Merlins are the size of pigeons, yet their curved beaks and large eyes mark them out readily as predators. Their square, small heads are another distinguishing feature of the species as are their square tails and yellow feet.
Females of the species are brown at their upper surfaces while their under surfaces exhibit streaking against a white background. Their wings are often barred with black.
Males, on the other hand, often have gray upperparts but also show streaking at the chest. They also have a faint mustache.
In February, many merlins begin to make the trip to their breeding grounds. However, breeding itself takes place between May and June.
Following a courtship during which the male presents intricate flight displays and offers the female gifts of food, she lays about 4 or 5 eggs.
She proceeds to incubate them for about 4 weeks or even longer. During this period, her mate brings her food also assuming brooding duties while she tops up on calories.
Once the hatchlings arrive, the female merlin remains with them, feeding them with morsels provided by her mate. The youngsters first fledge at 29 days but remain close by for several weeks to be cared for by their parents.
Both genders emit different sounds with males letting out a ki-ki-ki-ki sound and females letting out a kek-ek-ek-ek sound.
Merlins are none too fond of building their own nests and would much rather take over those left behind by corvids.
They tend to catch their prey on the wing and are rather fond of dragonflies which they consume while flying.
Merlins are also fond of house sparrows and Bohemian waxwings. According to experts, one merlin is capable of tucking away as many as 900 birds each year.
Habitat and Distribution
Merlins occur in deserts, farmland, marshes, and along coastlines. They are also pretty comfortable in urban areas.
The species migrates through much of Arkansas and may be found in its southernmost regions during winter.
- Scientific Name: Falco peregrinus
- Length:13 – 23 inches
- Weight: 12 – 53 ounces
- Wingspan: 29 – 47 inches
Members of this species can be recognized by a square head, thickened necks, solid frames, and yellow legs and feet. They also have long pointed wings and short tails. Because they are true falcons they also have that unique tooth and notch feature on their beaks.
The plumage in adults is dark at the head with a dark mustache, white at the throat, and slate gray at the upper surface. Adults also have barring in black and white or pale tan at the chest and under surfaces. Juveniles are mostly covered in brown which is barred at their upper surfaces.
Peregrine falcons tend to nest between March and June (they do not necessarily mate for life).
Their courtship displays include games of aerial tag and diving. The male also brings food to the female.
The species is rather versatile in terms of its nesting choices. Peregrine falcons may opt to settle down on cliffs, or even on riverbanks. They do not build nests but simply take over those provided by large birds such as herons.
Alternatively, they may scrape out a shallow depression in which to lay their eggs. Females lay 3 or 4 eggs which are pale brown and heavily speckled with dark brown. Their hatchlings fledge after about 6 weeks. However, their parents will care for them for another two months before they finally fly the nest.
Peregrine falcons tend to take prey on the wing and are known for their famous “stoop”. This method of hunting refers to their practice of attaining altitude and diving towards their prey at great speed.
Such is their hunting prowess that peregrine falcons are capable of taking on and overpowering larger birds including gulls.
Although they generally prefer settling down to a meal on a comfy perch, they may eat lunch on the wing, especially during migration.
Peregrine falcons are capable of hunting far out over the open ocean.
Habitat and Distribution
Peregrine falcons can be spotted throughout Arkansas while migrating to Central and South America. They breed in Alaska and northern Canada. Breeding populations can also be found much further south in a swathe of territory extending from Montana, Idaho, and Oregon, through Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.
- Scientific Name: Falco mexicanus
- Length: 16 inches
- Weight: 1.6 pounds
- Wingspan: 40 inches
Prairie falcons are covered in plumage which is dark at their upper surfaces and quite light at their undersurfaces which are also sparsely covered in dark streaks. The underparts of their wings have a unique triangle-shaped pattern at their wingpit feathers.
These raptors also have the characteristic yellow patch of skin close to their beaks. Their faces are also marked by malar stripes which are thinner and fainter compared to those of peregrine falcons.
Their unique coloring makes it hard for their prey to spot them when they hunt.
Prairie falcons prefer nesting on cliffs, rocky outcrops, or even powerline structures. They also prefer to take over nests left vacant by larger species such as golden eagles or ravens.
Female prairie falcons lay about 3 to 5 pale pink or white eggs speckled with brown or purple which they incubate for about a month. Their young fledge between 4 to 7 weeks after hatching following which they head to areas rich in prey.
Prairie falcons hunt in a manner that is similar to that of harriers. They engage in low altitude, rapid flights, approaching prey in a lengthy, low-angled stoop. Their main prey includes rodents and medium-sized birds.
They tend to emit a kik-kik-kik-kik-kik sound.
Habitat and Distribution
Prairie falcons mainly live in alpine tundra, arid plains, and steppes. There their plumage blends in with the cliffs, boulders, and bluffs which are key features of their habitat.
They are rarely found in Arkansas which lies outside their natural range. The raptors are primarily confined to the western United States in a range with an eastern border extending from North Dakota to Texas. This vast swathe of territory extends westwards to the Pacific coast, and southwards into Mexico.
Of Arkansas’ five falcon species, two, i.e., crested caracaras and prairie falcons, are generally not found in the state, and are likely to be accidental visitors. American kestrels, on the other hand, can be found throughout Oklahoma’s eastern neighbor.
Merlins and peregrine falcons pass throughout the state which forms part of their migratory routes, with the former opting to winter in Arkansas’ extreme south.
These intriguing raptors are as varied in terms of their appearance as they are in their habits, and are likely to provide onlooking birdwatchers with wonderful opportunities to admire their beauty and majesty.