Quick Facts

Scientific name:
Falco rusticolus
Indigenous name:
Ukiuqtaq (Iñupiaq), kirgavik ukiuqtaq (Anaktuvuk Pass Iñupiaq), aKigginiutik (Nunatsiavut), kissaviarsuk (Greenlandic)
IUCN conservation status:

Least concern (assessed August 10, 2021)

Genome sequenced?
No. of chromosomes:
24 x 2
Size of genome:

Did You Know?

  • It is the official bird of Canada’s Northwest Territories.
  • It is the largest Falcon in the world.
  • Gyrfalcons bathe in ice-melt water.
  • They can speed up to 130 mph or 209 kmph.
  • They can live up to 13 years in the wild and about 19 years in captivity.
  • The oldest Gyrfalcon was 15 years and 9 months old.
  • During the Middle Ages, it was regarded as a royal bird.
  • The Gyrfalcon spots its prey while flying. Instead of catching its prey in midair, it typically strikes and drives it to the ground, breaking the prey's bones in the process.
  • Gyrfalcons don’t build their own nests. They use old nests abandoned by others.
  • It is sometimes confused with the Northern Goshawk or Peregrine Falcon.

Life History

The Gyrfalcon mostly breeds along the Arctic shores of North America, Europe, and Asia (Booms et al., 2008); however, a few breed in the northwest region of the Northern Boreal Mountains Ecoprovince of British Columbia (Campbell et al., 1990).

They live in arctic tundra, grasslands, deserts, and various forests. They have also been observed to spend extended amounts of time, far from land, on sea ice throughout the winter.

These are highly polymorphic species, recognized in three colour phases: white, grey, and dark. The dark phase is dark grey and is found in northern Canada. The white morph is generally found in Greenland while the grey morph is an intermediate and found throughout the range.

Gyrfalcons hunt various birds, such as seabirds, waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds, but they mostly prey on willow and rock ptarmigans. Sometimes they also hunt mammals such as ground squirrels, lemmings, arctic foxes, and hares. During the breeding season, females frequently temporarily store food behind the vegetation a few hundred feet from the nest site.

Gyrfalcons nest on cliffs or in conifer tree nests of other species, such as Golden Eagles and Common Ravens. Before starting to breed, both males and females visit nesting cliffs. The clutch size is usually 3–4. The eggs are white or creamy white with reddish-brown spots. Both parents do incubation. During breeding or nonbreeding season, both the male and female may chase and strike at intruders, including Common Ravens, Rough-legged Hawks, and Peregrine Falcons, in an aggressive attempt to maintain the territory.

Importance in Indigenous Culture

Inuit people hunt these birds for food and feathers, which they use for clothing and religious purposes. The Indigenous inhabitants of the north hold spiritual significance for these few and opportunistically hunted creatures (Holt, 1999, personal communication; McLean, 1984; Trefry, 2000, personal communication) (Mc Lean, 1984). The feathers of Gyrfalcons were used in arrows and spears and were valuable trading items.

Conservation Issues

The IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species designated Gyrfalcon as a species of least concern in 2016. The species does not reach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over 10 years or three generations). Therefore, the overall trend is considered stable (Franke et al., 2020).

The major threat to Gyrfalcon is climate change as birds of prey are extremely sensitive to the changes in the environment. Their populations may be affected by the heavy hunting of their prey species such as Ptarmigan, Grouse and Willow Grouse (Tucker and Heath, 1994). Other threats include the illegal collection of their eggs from the wild to the falconry market, illegal shooting, and disturbances in nesting areas due to tourism (Hagemeijer and Blair, 1997).

Scientists believe that global warming has allowed another northern resident falcon, the Peregrine Falcon to expand its breeding range further north and this could cause nest site competition between the two falcon species. Birds of prey are good indicators of the general health of an ecosystem. We can monitor these huge birds to detect early signs of a change in the environment and work toward its restoration (Poole and Bromley, 1985).

Role of Genomics

Advances in genomics explore a better molecular-level knowledge of the evolutionary mechanisms responsible for the large diversity of falcons. The genus Falco's distinct evolutionary history makes studying its speciation mechanisms at various evolutionary stages possible. According to Gill and Donkser (2019), falcons have gone through several radiations and have a higher diversity than that of most of the genera of Aves.

Zuccolo et al. (2023) have compared the entire genome assembly of F. rusticolus with the genome assemblies of the zebra finch (T. guttata), hummingbird (C. anna) and domestic chicken (G. gallus) and found an indication of homology to one chromosome of the zebra finch, hummingbird, and domestic chicken.

The evidence gathered in other falcon species, such as Falco peregrinus, was consistent with the various genomic rearrangements seen in the Gyrfalcon genome (Nishida et al., 2008; O’Connor et al., 2018; Penalba et al., 2020)

The cultural and economic importance of Gyrfalcons makes them a candidate species for genome-wide studies.  They also act as potential reservoirs for disease transmission because of their close association with humans. For example, the cross-border movement of falconry falcons has resulted in the transmission and spread of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa after the consumption of infected prey in central Asia (Naguib et al., 2015). Captive falcons are also prone to novel pathogens. To gain a deeper understanding of the genetic and environmental factors responsible, metagenomic methods can be utilized.

The falcons are also selectively bred for certain desired traits to make them more appealing to falconers and are often hybridized with one another to obtain these traits (Flemming et al.,2011).  For example, in the United Arab Emirates, the falcons from long-term hybrid lineages, such as the 7/8 gyrfalcon × 1/8 saker falcon mixes are commonly referred to as the standard stocks of falcons produced and sold. To assess these factors and detect the role of hybridization, genomic approaches can be used.

Raptor monitoring through surveys and banding techniques is common but due to their remoteness, not all the areas could be covered easily. Integration of environmental DNA techniques could help in better and more accurate monitoring of the species.

Additionally, nothing is known about the typical healthy microbiome of the falcon species, therefore genomic characterization of falcon microbiomes can help produce better products for falconers and can contribute to improving the veterinary care to the species.



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