NZ Birds of Prey / Native / NZ Falcon
What makes Our Endemic NZ falcon unique?
The 2012 Bird of the Year winner ‘kārearea’ New Zealand falcon is our most threatened bird of prey. Wingspan aims to change that and restore populations back into the daily lives of all New Zealanders.↑
The NZ falcon is only found in New Zealand. Having evolved in a largely forested landscape it has developed a body shape that optimises its ability to hunt in this environment. It is one of only four forest falcons out of a total of 38 species of falcons worldwide.
Its adaptations to this habitat include short, relatively deep rounded wings, a long tail to maximise manoeuvrability and long legs and feet that enable it to catch small birds during surprise attacks. Its soft plumage is adapted to the forest environment, making the feathers more flexible and resistant to breaking in the rough and tumble that it often encounters when pursuing prey into thick cover. These are traits that are shared by other birds of prey found overseas known as Accipiters, hawks that also hunt in forest environments. However, it has also retained its more falcon-like traits, including the spectacular stooping dive that is typical of many falcons. This combination of adaptations makes the New Zealand falcon a very versatile hunter. It is rare for a falcon to have the ability to hunt in both forested and open habitats, but our New Zealand falcon can.
New Zealand falcons are also incredibly aggressive against all intruders to the nest. They more often than not make contact with the head of any humans foolish enough to try and get close to their nests. When they do so they hit the head with an outstretched foot raking with their talons! Other falcon species certainly defend their nests, but none do so as aggressively as our New Zealand falcon, known internationally as one of the bravest, most aggressive of the falcon species. A true New Zealand warrior you might say! Early scientists used to call it Falco ferox or ferocious falcon. These attributes make our ‘kārearea’ New Zealand falcon truly special – a unique species that has adapted to fulfil the roles that several species usually fill overseas.
What other names does the New Zealand falcon have? Scientists call it: Falco novaeseelandiae Māori have many names for the New Zealand falcon including: kārearea, kārewarewa, kāiaia, kāuaua, kāeaea, kārewarewa, Tawaka and Kakarapiti. Others know the falcon as the: bush hawk, sparrow hawk or quail hawk.
How fast can a falcon fly?
Peregrine falcons overseas have been recorded reaching speeds as high as 322 kph during its spectacular stooping hunting flights, making it the fastest animal in the world! Although New Zealand falcons may not be able to attain the incredibly high speeds of the Peregrine, being capable of keeping up with even the fastest of prey species in New Zealand, and being able to stoop like the Peregrine, it is widely regarded as New Zealand’s fastest flying bird.↑
So how fast is a New Zealand falcon? Very, very fast!
If in doubt, see our flying displays at the Wingspan National Bird of Prey Centre in Rotorua!
Why are falcons threatened in New Zealand?
New Zealand falcons evolved in the absence of mammalian predators and humans. As a result they commonly breed on the ground and the eggs, chicks and adults are highly susceptible to being preyed upon by these exotic predators. Combined with widespread habitat loss, modification and degradation, falcons have fewer places to safely nest, catch the food they need and raise their young. Illegal shooting by humans, collisions with cars and windows, and electrocution by landing on un-insulated power poles also pose significant threats to falcons nationwide.
Threats facing the falcon include:
• Direct predation from introduced mammal predators
• Loss of breeding habitat through habitat clearance and modification
• Degradation of habitat quality and reduced food availability
• Persecution by humans (shooting, trapping and deliberate poisoning)
• Collision with cars and windows
• Electrocution by landing on un-insulated power poles
Electrocution has been proven to have a significant impact on the survival of New Zealand falcon and it is highly likely that electrocution is a factor that limits populations of this threatened species nationwide. The risk is especially high in open areas where power poles provide the most convenient perching opportunity in the landscape.↑
If efforts to conserve this spectacular, yet threatened species are to be successful it is imperative that this hazard is addressed nationwide.
What do Falcons Eat?
Being a relatively small bird the New Zealand falcon generally preys on small to medium sized birds. Prey is commonly taken in relation to its abundance in the environment. It can however take prey as large as ¾ grown adult hares and pheasants and as a result it is known as one of the most gutsy falcon species in the world!↑
When the male brings back food to the nest he will often pass it to the female mid-air by either dropping it for her to catch or passing it foot to foot. During these spectacular food passes the adult females can turn completely upside down in the air!
Where and when do falcons breed?
New Zealand falcons breed in a wide variety of habitats; in native bush, pine plantations, tussock lands and roughly grazed hill country pasture. In most of these areas they either lay their eggs into a small scrape in the dirt on the ground or on small bluffs. However in podocarp forests they nest in the epiphytic plants (mostly Astelia and Colospermum) found growing in large emergent trees such as rimu.↑
We still do not understand the full distribution of the falcon breeding population in New Zealand but it is clear that in some areas the falcon is in decline or in some instances such as Northland entirely absent. Help us understand more about these wonderful birds and report any New Zealand falcons you see by reporting a falcon sighting.
The breeding season commences in late August with the very last birds fledging the nest in mid-March. Between one and four eggs are laid with incubation lasting approximately 30 days. Chicks generally hatch between October and December. Up to four chicks can fledge the nest, but the average number fledged is around two birds.
What does a falcon sound like?
Falcons have a variety of calls dependant on the situation, but the most commonly heard is the defensive “kekking” call which is made during territorial disputes or while the nest is being defended from potential predators (including humans)!
Being larger, the females kekking call is generally deeper than that of the male. Young falcons and adult females make a “whining” call when begging for food. After copulation or during other interactions between a pair, falcons are also often heard making a “chitter” call.
Are all New Zealand falcons the same?
No they are not. New Zealand falcons have been classified into three different types based on ecological and morphological differences. The three forms are known as the Bush, Eastern and Southern falcons. There is probably a large overlap in the ranges of these forms but Bush falcons generally occur in the North Island of New Zealand and in the north western end of the South Island. Eastern falcons range from Marlborough down into the southern end of the South Island and Southern falcons occur throughout Fiordland and down into the subantarctic Auckland Islands.
Five ways to tell the difference between a falcon and a harrier:
1. The falcon is usually seen in active hunting flight, chasing small birds with rapid wing beats; whereas the harrier is mostly seen gliding over the ground searching for carrion and small prey.
2. Harriers glide with wings set in a shallow dihedral V-shape and rock slightly in the changing air currents. Falcons glide with a very flat wing either very close to the ground trying to surprise prey, or very high in the sky as they survey their surroundings.
3. Harriers are often seen feeding on road-kill. Falcons almost exclusively take live prey and are very rarely seen on the side of the road.
4. Harriers have a large 1 metre wingspan and stand around 50cm tall. Falcons have a much shorter wingspan and are much smaller (about the size of a magpie).
5. Falcons and harriers differ in their plumage and colouration (see photos below).
download falcon / harrier differences PDF →
Want to learn more about falcons? Then check out our PDF list of key references for more information and come and visit us at the Wingspan National Bird of Prey Centre in Rotorua to see these wonderful birds up close and learn about them from our expert staff.