What else can you find amidst Colorado’s swooping mountains and lush forests? According to today’s passionate birders, you can spot up to 6 fascinating falcon species!
Falcons have a hard-earned reputation as fierce birds who seem to embody the very spirit of the wild. However, more species are starting to become comfortable with human activity and crop up in urban locations.
While outdoorsy birders will see most of the falcons on this list, city birders will still have a lot to enjoy. I like a blend of different birding environments myself, so I’ll help you out no matter what your preference is.
My guide below has several common and rare species in Colorado sorted by appearance, behavior, and range. You’ll also pick up some fun facts you may not have known about!
- Species Name: Falco Sparverius
- Weight: 80 grams to 165 grams
- Length: 22 cm to 31 cm
- Wingspan: 51 to 61 cm
Starting off the list is the stunning American kestrel. This falcon is a particularly good choice for photographers and painters looking for visual inspiration.
Male American kestrels have beautiful blue-gray wings, a cinnamon-brown body, and a white stomach. Their faces are a blend of white, black, and blue patches.
These falcons have significant barring along their wings and tail, which makes them quite a sight when they’re flying. If you look closely, you’ll notice they have a particularly small beak and large eyes.
Female American kestrels look similar but are more brown overall and significantly larger.
American Kestrels are one of the easier falcons to spot in Colorado, showing up throughout the state all year long. They prefer more open spaces so they can easily survey the land for their next meal.
Keep a sharp eye out for spacious fields, meadows, grasslands, farmland, and shrubby forest edges. They’re a common sight chilling on fence posts or lone trees with little to block their view.
The American kestrel is a fierce hunter that frequently swoops along the land for small mammals such as voles, mice, and shrews. They’ll also eat frogs, insects, and various small bird species.
These falcons have a sharp and assertive call, often letting out chee-chee-cheeeee notes.
American Kestrels are so well known for eating smaller birds that they are also known as the sparrowhawk.
- Species Name: Falco mexicanus
- Weight: 500 grams to 970 grams
- Length: 38 cm to 45 cm
- Wingspan: 102 to 107 cm
This falcon doesn’t get quite as much attention as its more colorful cousins, but it’s a dashing bird in its own right. Their heavy barring and fascinating behavior make them a must-see bird.
The prairie falcon has subdued coloration, covered in gray-brown feathers with a heavily mottled stomach. Their faces have an interesting mustache design with two dark marks stretching along the beak.
Like most falcons, females are notably larger and heavier.
This falcon is an incredibly diverse bird, showing up in Colorado year-round in just about every environment you can think of. While they’re big fans of agricultural fields and grasslands, they’ll also show up in mountain ranges.
Need a starting point for your next Colorado birding trip? Check out the Rocky Mountain National Park to see plenty of prairie falcons (as well as the next falcon on this list!).
This powerful bird will often hunt small mammals such as squirrels, ground squirrels, and chipmunks. However, they’re able to hunt larger mammals such as gophers and rabbits.
When their usual food supply runs low, they’ll hunt lizards and various bird species such as doves and ptarmigans.
If you’re thinking of a classic falcon shriek, think again! The prairie falcon sounds like they’re laughing, letting out chattery haw-haw-haw or ki-ki-ki notes.
Prairie falcons literally live life on the edge. They’ll inhabit abandoned nests on cliff ledges or potholes on the sides of mountains.
- Species Name: Falco peregrinus
- Weight: 330 grams to 1,500 grams
- Length: 34 cm to 58 cm
- Wingspan: 29 cm to 47 cm
These iconic falcons are well-known for being masters of speed, but there are even more interesting facts about them!
Male peregrine falcons have dark gray-brown coloration along their head, back, and wings. However, their chest and stomach are a pop of white with heavy brown streaks.
Their sharp yellow beak and yellow skin on their legs carve a striking contrast against their plumage.
Female peregrine falcons have similar coloration and patterns but are much larger than males. In fact, they can be twice as heavy!
These falcons usually show up during breeding season in Colorado but are more common during migration. Keep a sharp eye out during spring and fall in their favorite locations.
Colorado is known for its stunning mountain ranges, so birders who like to hike will have an advantage here. Peregrine falcons love mountains, cliffs, coastlines, and rivers.
Alongside the previously mentioned Rocky Mountain National Park, you can also find these falcons at the Spinney Mountain State Park. This is a particularly good spot for birders who want to get a little fishing in.
The peregrine falcon usually hunts other bird species, particularly ptarmigans, doves, ducks, and pigeons. They’ll also hunt seabirds, owls, and even other falcons!
Peregrine falcons aren’t as chatty as other falcons, but you may be able to catch their swooping song. Listen closely for a hweeeh-hweeeh-hweeeh call.
The peregrine falcon’s range is so vast, that they’re considered a ‘global bird’. They show up on literally every single continent except for Antarctica (and who knows if they’ll decide to hang out there someday!).
- Species Name: Falco rusticolus
- Weight: 1,350 to 2,100 grams
- Length: 48 to 65 cm
- Wingspan: 110 to 160 cm
While the peregrine falcon is known for being small and fast, the gyrfalcon is the complete opposite. This bird is the largest in the falcon family and has a (literally) regal history.
This beautiful raptor can be a little tricky to spot due to its various ‘morphs’ (a term referring to different coloration). However, their incredibly large size will set them apart from other birds.
Below are their common visual variations – you’re most likely to see white and silver/gray in North America.
- Brown – a cream body and spotted stomach with dark brown wings
- Black – a brown-black body with a speckled stomach and spotted head
- White – a bright white body sprinkled with dark spots along the back and wings
- Silver/gray – a silvery body with a light stomach and dark gray wings
Females are significantly larger than males and have more ‘bulk’ to them. They’re so fluffy, their heads can end up looking quite tiny.
These falcons are an accidental species in Colorado, but some birders have spotted them in the northern and central portions of the state. Keep a close eye out during spring and fall, in particular.
While these falcons usually prefer the Arctic tundra, they’re also fond of grasslands, coastlines, and farmlands.
Gyrfalcons are accomplished hunters and frequently seek out mammals of various sizes. They’ll hunt smaller species like lemmings, stoats, and mice, but will also go after hares and foxes.
When their primary food supply runs low, they’ll go after bats and occasionally trout. However, fishing is still pretty rare and often done as a last resort.
The gyrfalcon has a varied song, alternating between swooping calls and husky chatters. They sometimes sound like an alarm with their repetitive hweh-hweh-hweh notes.
This bird was a popular hunting companion for kings all the way back in the Middle Ages. In fact, it was often illegal for anyone else to use the bird in falconry!
- Species Name: Falco columbarius
- Weight: 125 grams to 300 grams
- Length: 24 cm to 33 cm
- Wingspan: 58 cm to 66 cm
This sleek bird is a rarer sight in Colorado but shows up more often during the winter months. Fortunately, Colorado winters aren’t as harsh as other states (especially near the Denver area).
Merlins are small, elegant falcons who also have quite a bit of variety on the color spectrum. Below is a brief guide on various morphs you may encounter in Colorado (though black and coastal forests are the most common).
- Black Merlin – a sleek, dark gray-blue with a bright white stomach covered in streaks
- Coastal Forest Merlin – also a sleek, dark gray-blue with a bright white stomach covered in streaks
- Prairie Merlin – a deep, dusty brown with a bright stomach with heavy flecks
- Pacific Northwest Merlin – a very dark blue (almost black) with a bright white stomach
Merlins show up in Colorado year-round. Keep a close eye out during spring and fall to glimpse one of these beautiful birds.
Merlins will switch up their range depending on their morph. For example, Prairie Merlins are fondest of meadows and open, shrubby areas.
On the other hand, Coastal Forest Merlins prefer forested locations. Consider visiting the Ramah State Wildlife Area to glimpse these falcons (as long as you have a valid fishing or hunting license, that is!).
A major reason why merlins are so widespread and diverse is due to their diet. These falcons are just as likely to eat insects and reptiles as they are to eat various mammals.
They’ll also eat frogs and bats when the mood strikes them.
Merlins have a bright and assertive call, often letting out chee-chee-chee patterns.
While many birds migrate in large groups, merlins are known to migrate solo.
- Species Name: Caracara cheriway
- Weight: 952 grams to 1,348 grams
- Length: 50 cm to 65 cm
- Wingspan: 120 cm to 132 cm
This falcon never ceases to amaze me. Not only does it have a unique appearance more similar to a vulture, but it also has fascinating hunting and scavenging behavior.
These large falcons have a chocolate brown body, white throat, and brown-capped head. Their most distinctive feature is their broad orange face and silver-blue beak tip.
If you can’t tell the difference between males and females, don’t worry – even biologists get them confused. Both sexes have similar plumage and size, but females are slightly larger.
This accidental species has cropped up a few times over the years in Colorado. The last sighting was back in 2021, so you could see one if you get lucky!
These falcons are fond of large, open spaces such as meadows, plains, and agricultural fields.
While most falcons are committed hunters, crested caracaras will both hunt and scavenge. They’ll hunt small birds, lizards, frogs, shellfish, and various insects.
However, whenever they come across another bird’s kill, they’ll snatch whatever they can.
These falcons don’t just look strange, they also sound strange. Their call is composed of low, chittering notes (and they’ll sometimes toss their head back while calling).
These falcons are rather long-lived in captivity – they can live to be at least thirty years old!
Colorado Is a Fantastic Adventure for Curious Birders
Colorado is one of the best locations for birding because you get both worlds – common and uncommon species to add to your list.
American Kestrels and peregrine falcons are relatively easy to come by here, while gyrfalcons and merlins are rarer. I recommend visiting the state’s bountiful parks such as the Rocky Mountain National Park, Ramah State Wildlife Area, and Spinney Mountain State Park to glimpse several of these species.
If you get lucky, you may even be one of the few to see a crested caracara. If you’re able to get a photo, consider sending it over to the Colorado Bird Records Committee.
Curious to learn about other birds in the state? Our guide on birds in Colorado has tips on spotting finches, hummingbirds, swallows, and more!