From: David A Gabel, ENN
Published June 24, 2011 10:27 AM

The Amazing Lifestyle of the Gyrfalcon

The gyrfalcon is a species of falcon which lives on the arctic coasts and islands of North America, Europe, and Asia. It is the largest of all the falcon species. Being well adapted to cold weather, the gyrfalcon has thick plumage and spotted white feathers for blending into the icy background. A recent study from the University of Oxford has uncovered a very unique trait which this species possesses. It is the only known land-based predatory bird to make its home on icebergs floating over the ocean.


The study tracked the seasonal movements of 48 gyrfalcons using radio transmitters. They found that some spent most of the winter months over the ocean using sea ice and icebergs as bases from which to hunt. This is unheard of for a predator bird that is not at all adapted to life on the water. The falcon does not possess the adaptations of sea birds like gulls, gannets, terns, and ducks. It does not have webbed feet for paddling or an oily coating on its feathers to keep it dry.

What the gyrfalcon does have is strong talons, quick speed, and an impressive ability to catch winged prey. Because it hunts other birds, it does not have to dive into the water. It can soar above the waves and, using its speed, capture sea birds and carry them to its iceberg for consumption.

Kurt Burnham, who led the research while at Oxford University's Edward Grey Institute and now runs the High Arctic Institute, told Matt Walker at BBC Nature: "I was very surprised by this finding... These birds are not moving between land masses, but actually using the ice floes or pack ice as winter habitat for extended periods of time...In the big picture this shows how adaptable and mobile gyrfalcons have to be in order to survive and reproduce in the harsh arctic environment they live in."

Gyrfalcons have long impressed humans with their mastery of the sky. In Canada’s Northwest Territories, it is the official bird. It is also represented on the Icelandic coat of arms. During medieval times, it was considered a royal bird throughout Europe, Asia, and as far south as Egypt. Today, they are used by people for hunting and the art of falconry.

This new study shows that the gyrfalcon is capable of living and thriving in some of the world's harshest climates. It has been published in the journal Ibis, the International Journal of Avian Science.

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Photo credit: University of Oxford

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