A prairie falcon is a North American bird that relishes the open country of prairies, deserts, and alpine landscapes. A member of the falcon family, the prairie falcon is often used as a trained hunter in the ancient sport of falconry. Prairie falcons are believed to have a relatively stable population throughout much of their native range; however, encroachment has lead to some reduction in breeding sites, food supply, and habitat.
An adult prairie falcon looks quite similar to its near relative, the peregrine falcon, but can be distinguished through coloration. Prairie falcons have mottled gray-brown feathers on their backs and tails, with a white chest marked with brown spots or streaks. Under the wing, the prairie bird features a dark colored patch that makes it easily distinguishable from the peregrine when in flight.
A mighty aerial hunter, this falcon searches for prey flying low to the ground, preferring to use the element of surprise to swoop down unexpectedly and snatch away a meal. Generally, the diet consists of small mammals or the young of medium sized mammals, including squirrels, prairie dogs, and mice. Falcons also eat other birds, generally catching them in flight. In some cases, a falcon may also dine on insects and reptiles.
The natural habitat of the species is enormous, stretching throughout most of the North American continent. Birds are found throughout a large portion of the western and central United States and lower sections of Canada. Some even range as far south as central Mexico, despite the vast climate change from the temperate plains and chilly north.
Although the birds tend to hunt on open grassland, they prefer to nest in rocky cliffs, which offer protection from some predators. Falcons may share cliff space amicably with a variety of other raptor species, including eagles and hawks. Fledgling falcons are helpless at birth, and remain in the nest for five or six weeks. The birds remain in monogamous pairs throughout the breeding season, with the male prairie falcon taking on hunting duties for the fledglings during the first few weeks after hatching.
Thanks to a large population and easy availability, the prairie falcon has been a favorite bird for use in hunting, called falconry. Training and hunting with falcons has long been an extracurricular activity at the United States Air Force Academy since the 1950s, with many prairie falcons used in the program. The particular species is often admired for its versatile hunting tactics and aggressive attack style.