Arts July 10, 2008

Spirit Messengers

"The wind is the corporeal element most akin to the divine."-Socrates, Phaedrus

Our fascination with raptors travels as far back as Egyptian mythology with Horus, the god of the sky and of light, who was regularly depicted as a falcon. Ancient myths have held eagles, hawks and falcons as creator gods associated with sun and fire and as messengers between heaven and earth, between gods and humans. They captivate and repel, inspire and rouse us with a mystique that reaches well beyond the mythical.

Clocked at speeds of 242 mph, Peregrine falcons are the fastest animal alive, capable of folding their wings in a precise dive posture that literally slices the air in two. Many raptors feature special cone-shaped projections in the center of round nostrils to slow down the air flow and allow for incredibly fast flight without damaging the bird’s lungs.

There are 330 diurnal raptor species worldwide and 40 species found in North America. Many are territorial and solitary; some, hunt in family units. Some drop through the sky like daggers, others hover above unsuspecting prey. Still others stretch a foot out with lightning speed to catch insects from the air. All are unique and highly evolved for their specific habitat and prey. It is possible that the world they see is so vastly different and unique from ours that we simply cannot comprehend it in any logical manner. With the generous assistance of The Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, the following is a portrait for future contemplation.

peregrine falcon
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus): Gus, Male
Wingspan: 38-42 inches
Length: 15-20 inches
Weight: 1-3 pounds
Life Span: 12 to 15 years in the wild
Habitat/Range: Found on every continent, except Antarctica. Adaptable, with habitat ranging from tropics and deserts to the tundra.
Story: Peregrines were placed on the U.S. Endangered Species List in 1970. They were completely wiped out in the Eastern United States and there were only 39 known pairs in the Western U.S. Thanks to the efforts of The Peregrine Fund, they were removed from the Endangered Species List on August 20, 1999. Known for their spectacular high-speed dives, Peregrine falcons typically capture prey in midair after fast pursuit or a rapid dive. The name (peregrinus) translates literally to wanderer, referring to the species-wide distribution.
Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus): Sigrid, Female
Wingspan: 48-52 inches
Length: 20-25 inches
Weight: 2-4.5 pounds
Life Span: 10 to 12 years in the wild
Habitat/Range: Inhabits circumpolar arctic and subarctic regions, with some individuals moving south into northern temperate zones during fall and winter in response to a lack of prey. The largest member of the falcon family, gyrfalcons are highly adapted to surviving in extremely cold climates—they can acutally cover their feet completely with feathers to help protect them from the elements.
Story: Known as the “King’s falcon” during the Middle Ages, since only the king could fly a gyrfalcon. Gyrfalcons nest in the arctic and may even start laying eggs before the temperature rises above zero degrees Fahrenheit. Legend holds that Genghis Khan’s future mother-in-law dreamt that a white falcon holding the sun and moon in its talons flew down from the sky to her hand. She took the vision as a sign that her daughter would marry the future conqueror (Falcon by Helen Macdonald, 2006). Gyrfalcons exist in a variety of color morphs from nearly black to white.


American Kestral
American Kestral (Falco sparverius): Soldier, Male
Wingspan: 20-24 inches
Length: 9-12 inches
Weight: 3.5-5.5 ounces
Life Span: 8 to 10 years in the wild
Habitat/Range: Found throughout most of North, Central and South America. They inhabit tropical lowlands, deserts and urban areas.
Story: The smallest and most numerous falcon in North America. They are best known for their unique hovering while pursuing prey. Most prey is caught on the ground, but some are taken in flight. Kestrels catch prey with their feet, primarily insects—grasshoppers, dragonflies and crickets; along with mice, voles, lizards and snakes.
American Kestral


Red-Tailed Hawk
Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamiacensiss): Chance, Male
Wingspan: 42-56 inches
Length: 17-22 inches
Weight: 1.5-3.3 pounds
Life Span: 12 to 18 years in the wild
Habitat/Range: Found throughout North America and scattered through Central America and the West Indies. They inhabit open fields and deserts that are interspersed with woods or bluffs, mountain forests or tropical rainforests.
Story: As with many raptors, red-tailed hawks typically mate for life and form a pair bond that is usually maintained until death. They soar on migration and avoid long water crossings that require sustained powered flight. They are, therefore, concentrated along shorelines, peninsulas and other large bodies of water. Like all raptors, red-tailed hawks have three eyelids: top, bottom, plus a third eyelid which closes laterally across the eye—to protect eyes during flight or feeding.
Red-Tailed Hawk


This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.