by Ben Long
Count yourself lucky if you ever see a gyrfalcon, one of the most striking and remarkable birds of prey in the world.
Almost 20 years ago, Karen and I were on a routine drive to Missoula. For kicks, we drove down a farm road in the Mission Valley and, by chance, spied a Gyrfalcon on a telephone pole. I don’t remember anything else about that day, beyond the majesty of that bird.
Gyrfalcons are not as fast as peregrine falcons, but they are bigger. At top speeds, they can still hit an impressive 130 miles per hour. The “Gyr” is short for gyro, or spiral. This probably relates to the climbing spiral flight pattern of a raptor gaining altitude. They sometimes fly high and drop precipitously upon prey; other times they streak after them nearly at ground level.
Because of their large size, striking appearance and dramatic hunting styles, Gyrfalcons, particularly the lighter colored specimens, are highly prized by falconers. Some Gyrfalcons are bred in captivity and fetch prices from $5,000 to many times that much for top pedigrees.
“Gyrs” are roughly the size of a Red-tailed Hawk but with the fighter-jet aerodynamics of the falcon tribe. They are nearly two feet long with a wingspan of about four feet. As is the case with many raptor species, females are substantially larger than males. No one is exactly sure why this is, but one leading hypothesis is it leaves the females better prepared to defend nests from raiding predators.
Mated pairs are strongly bonded, generally until one of the pair dies. Gyrfalcons nest on the edges of cliffs or in trees in a nest abandoned by Common Ravens or Golden Eagles. Their heads typically have the “falcon-esque” mustache or hood, although not as distinct as often found on a peregrine falcon. They range from nearly white to dark grey with barring on the front. Like snowy owls, they tend to be darker when young and grow lighter over their lifespans.
Gyrs are similar to rough-legged hawks in that both breed and nest in the tundra and winter in Montana. They summer near the Arctic Circle, then descend southward to similar terrain, typically the sage-steppe or Great Plains or the dunes along the coastline. In winter, they dip about as far south as the middle of Wyoming.
They are a circumpolar species, meaning they live across northern reaches of the globe. They also live in Scandinavia and northern Russia as far south as Mongolia. In the arctic, they focus on shorebirds and ptarmigan, and arctic hares. In their winter ranges, they sink their talons into a variety of birds from gulls to crows to songbirds.
Gyrfalcons are not exactly common in northwestern Montana in the winter, but can be found in pastures and open farmlands. The good news is they are not considered threatened globally. Approximately forty percent of the world’s Gyrfalcons nest and breed in Canada. That is the source of most of the gyrfalcons that winter in Montana.
Winters in Montana can get long and grey. So keep a pair of binoculars in your car and take the time to prowl the backcountry roads. You may get to watch a gyrfalcon as a reward.