Posted by: Dan | July 21, 2010

Saker Falcon

Saker falcon, Falco cherrug, at nest with 4 chicks (Credit: G. Robbrecht / http://www.ardea.com)

It’s been a while since I posted a good bit of bird photography, mostly because I myself don’t have a good camera lens for wild birds, plus I don’t feel right begging for photos from others and I don’t have the money to pay for bird photographs. But I find it very nice to post about particular species and feel good about using ARKive, a non-commercial repository for wildlife photography sponsored by NGOs.

This week’s, the Saker Falcon (Latin/scientific: Falco cherrug, Greek: Στεπότζάνος) is one of those rare passage migrants that a twitcher in Cyprus dreams of. It is a large falcon of open grasslands preferably with some trees or cliffs, ranging from the steppes of eastern Europe to Western China.

Saker Falcons have great variation in colour and pattern exist, ranging from a fairly uniform chocolate brown colour to a pale sandy colour with brown bars or streaks, to almost pure white individuals. They’re also part of a closely knit group of falcons called the hierofalcons, which also includes the Lanner Falcon, Laggar Falcon, and Gyrfalcon. In this group, there is ample evidence for rampant hybridization and incomplete lineage sorting which confounds analyses of DNA sequence data to a massive extent; molecular studies with small sample sizes can simply not be expected to yield reliable conclusions in the entire hierofalcon group. The radiation of the entire living diversity of hierofalcons seems to have taken place in the Eemian interglacial at the start of the Late Pleistocene, a mere 130,000-115,000 years ago; the Saker Falcon represents a lineage that expanded out of northeastern Africa into the interior of southeastern Europe and Asia, by way of the eastern Mediterranean region [Nittinger, et al (2005) – link].

Despite their variations, Saker Falcons generally have brown upperbellies and contrasting grey flight feathers. The head and underparts are paler brown, with streaking from the breast down. They can be distinguished from other hierofalcons by their broad blunt wings that give them a silhouette similar to Gyrfalcons, but their plumage is more similar to Lanner Falcons. Adults can be distinguished from the similar Lanner Falcon since the Lanner is blue-grey above with a reddish back to the head.

Unfortunately, they are highly prized by Arab falconers. Female sakers, being larger, are preferred by falconers has led to a gender imbalance in wild populations, with males outnumbering females. In fact, about 90 percent of the almost 2,000 falcons trapped each year during the fall migration are females. This is a devastating number, even were there no gender imbalance in wild populations, since the global population is so low. In 1990, the global Saker Falcon population was estimated to be no more than 12,000 pairs, and in 2003 no more than 4,400. In the central part of their range, the Middle East where the Arab falconers are, population declines are thought to be greater than 90%.

So you can imagine why I would be ecstatic were I to see one myself. They’re damn rare, and getting rarer.

For more info, check out:
The Southeast European Saker Falcon Network
Falco cherrug on the IUCN Red List
Falco cherrug on the Animal Diversity Web
Middle East Falcon Research Group


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