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Is the Gyrfalcon right for you?

Species group:

Other common names: Gyr Falcon; Greenland Falcon; Iceland Falcon

Scientific name: Falco rusticolus

The basics:
A white Gyrfalcon has been one of the most highly sought falconry birds for centuries. The largest of the falcons, this bird was honored for its power in pursuit of desirable prey like grouse, as well as for its great beauty. In Medieval Europe, only kings were allowed to hunt with the Gyrfalcon. During the Third Crusade, King Philip I of France lost his Gyrfalcon to Saladin, the enemy – and reportedly Saladin would not exchange the bird even for a ransom of 1,000 gold crowns.

Because of the licensing and expertise required to be a responsible owner of a bird of prey, the following information is offered only as a hint of what you will need to learn to work with Gyrfalcons. There's no substitute for hands-on training, which we strongly recommend that you pursue before trying to acquire any bird of prey.

The Gyrfalcon is a falcon of the dry, cold Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Eurasia and North America. While its distant breeding grounds provide some protection against human encroachment, they have at times been the victim of illegal hunting, capture, or egg collecting. When prey populations crash, some Gyrfalcons will move south into areas where they can be viewed more easily by human birders, and such “irruptive” years are eagerly awaited.

As the largest falcon, the Gyrfalcon is an impressive predator. In addition to the rare white morphs, there are gray and dark morphs. Females are larger than males.

Male: 1,170 grams (41 oz.)
Female: 1,752 grams (62 oz.)

Average size:
Male: 52 centimeters (20 in.)
Female: 59 centimeters (23 in.)

15 - 20 years

Behavior / temperament:
The Gyrfalcon is a powerful and tenacious hunter. Indeed, leading falconer Harold Melvin Webster published a description of how his female Gyrfalcon actually caught a Prairie Falcon that was harassing her. (The spirited Prairie Falcon survived, recovered, and was itself trained as a falconry bird.) They will demand a great deal of hunting territory and plenty of regular exercise to keep in shape. You will need to use telemetry to avoid losing your bird when it hunts over a great distance.

Like the Prairie Falcon, this intelligent bird can be a fast learner, but it can also be somewhat unpredictable. Webster recommended that no one attempt to work with a Gyrfalcon who had not first trained at least half a dozen Prairie Falcons to “field excellence” -- a high standard indeed and a reminder of the demands required of the serious falconer interested in this fascinating species.

An Arctic bird, the Gyrfalcon is sensitive to heat and humidity, and it should be provided with a cool, dry aviary where it is protected at all costs from damp heat. The quarters must be kept absolutely clean. That said, this is an active bird that demands to be flown, and it probably shouldn't be considered if you live in a hot, humid climate. A top-notch state of the art security system will be a necessity. Like other birds of prey, the Gyr bathes in water and will need a shallow bath.

The Gyrfalcon is a carnivore that needs to consume some whole prey in order to allow its digestive system to work properly. A falcon of the far north, wild Gyrs prefer game birds like ptarmigan and grouse, but they are versatile and can also capture such items as lemmings and waterfowl. Captive breeders have done well on easily acquired items like day old chicks and Coturnix quail. They should also be provided with water.

Written by Elaine Radford


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