During the months of September and October, the Wrangell Mountains Center is hosting a series of blog posts about raptors in partnership with the NEA and Copper River Valley’s Big Read. This year’s Big Read book is the Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. You can read the first post about raptors in Alaska here.
The falcon, as a bird of prey, may be an important symbol in the 1929 detective novel, the Maltese Falcon, indeed it is named in the title and many make references to the similarities between falcons and falcon hunters and the book’s main character, Sam Spade. Many people may think of falcons as ruthless, bloodthirsty hunters (and this may be why they are used as a symbol in literature), but they are also beautiful birds and graceful aerialists that usually only hunt out of necessity.
There are four types of falcons in Alaska: the American Kestrel is the smallest (about the size of a robin), the Merlin (which is smaller than a pigeon), the Peregrine Falcon (which is crow-sized) and the Gyrfalcon, which is the largest (about the size of a raven). Except for the Gyrfalcon, which is usually a year-round resident, and some sub-species of Peregrines, most falcons migrate, sometimes all the way down to South America during the winter.
Falcons are distinguished by other raptors by their long, narrow, pointed wings that are especially adapted for fast flying and diving. They also have special adaptations in their beaks and eyes so that they can see and breathe while diving, or stooping. A stooping falcon folds its wings and can exceed 200 miles per hour. Below is a link to a video of a skydiver and a peregrine falcon stooping:
Since falcons are such amazing hunters, people have worked with them for thousands of years, training the birds to hunt with people. Falconry is the sport of pursuing, capturing, or killing game using a trained raptor and is a lawful method of hunting and practiced in Alaska. To read more about people practicing falconry today check out this article from 2010 in the Alaska News Miner.