Mike Jacobs: Falcons steal the headlines in late March

The week of the falcon: That's what it was. Three species of the falcon family appeared in the area last week. That's as many as we can reasonably expect.

Illustration by Mike Jacobs
Illustration by Mike Jacobs

The week of the falcon: That's what it was. Three species of the falcon family appeared in the area last week. That's as many as we can reasonably expect.

Marv the Peregrine got the most attention. His arrival made the front page of the Herald. He's back for his fifth year on the UND water tower. Or at least he's been seen there. For the last several days, he's apparently been elsewhere, perhaps seeking female companionship. His long-term mate, Terminator, had not shown up by midweek, and Marv may be looking for her, or potentially for another female. His business, after all, is producing more peregrine falcons, as Dave Lambeth, dean of local birders, pointed out in a conversation last week.

Marv's record in that regard is good. He's sired 13 young falcons here. Terminator has nested in grand Forks since 2008, and she has produced 29 young falcons, though not all of them have survived.

Peregrine pairs don't migrate together, and females usually arrive later than males. She's been seen as early as March 23. One year, she didn't show up until April 10.

Marv and Terminator are among the most studied, and most intimately known, of birds in Grand Forks. Their only challengers might be among the city's Cooper's hawks. Raptor expert Tim Driscoll is responsible for this; he's banded the birds, drawn blood, looked for parasites, weighed and named the peregrines, numbered the hawks and generally kept track of both species. He knows what birds they are related to and where they were fledged. This is more, I'd point out, than most of us know about our human friends.


Driscoll also counts another species of falcon that's taken up residence in Grand Forks. This is the merlin, formerly thought of as a bird of wide open, wilderness spaces but lately a more frequent city dweller. Several merlins have been seen in Grand Forks within the last 10 days, but it's probably too early to judge how large the population has become, and how many pairs of merlins will nest here this year.

Peregrine falcons are new as a nesting species in the Red River Valley. The area didn't have the cliff faces these birds preferred for nesting. The birds have adapted to human structures, however, and Fargo and Crookston have had nests. Merlin nests were known in North Dakota, usually in isolated stands of trees, but they weren't common. More recently, however, merlin numbers have risen sharply. I've seen merlins hanging around field shelterbelts and farmsteads north and west of Grand Forks, and they've established themselves in the city, too.

The third falcon species that's shown up is the American kestrel. This is the most abundant falcon here. In spring migration, scores can be seen perched on overhead wires, fence posts and sometimes on road signs, hay bales and rock piles. They do occur in Grand Forks, but most of my encounters with kestrels in the city have been in winter, at least once on the annual Christmas bird count.

The kestrel is the smallest and most colorful of the falcons, usually showing quite a bit of rust or orange color. It also has the ability to hover, so it is easily recognized even at some distance.

Merlins are intermediate in size between kestrels and peregrines, and they resemble peregrines quite closely. In addition to size, the big difference is the facial pattern, which is quite bold in peregrine falcons and quite a bit more subtle in merlins. Merlins are slate blue in color with breasts streaked in brown or rust.

Peregrines are large falcons, powerfully built and capable of extremely fast flight, perhaps as fast as 200 mph in dives on prey.

These three don't quite exhaust the falcons that might occur here, though they are the ones to expect. Prairie falcons occur in the area with fair regularity, though they are more common farther west. Prairie falcons are an iconic species in North Dakota's Badlands. The prairie falcon is the size of a merlin but lighter in color. In flight it shows black in the wing pits.

Gyrfalcons also have been seen in our area, though they are extremely rare. This is the great falcon of the North; in some winters, it comes as far south as this. There are two color phases, white and dark. The bird's large size and pointed wings help identify it.


TOM STROMME/TribuneMike Jacobs is the former editor of the Grand Forks Herald and writes a weekly column focusing on the 65th North Dakota Legislature assembly.
Mike Jacobs

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