Saker falcon

Saker falcon is a large species of falcon. It is a large, strong bird of prey with large legs and pointed wings. It is larger than the peregrine falcon but slightly smaller than the gyrfalcon and has a very wide wingspan relative to its size. Saker Falcons have a large color range from dark brown to gray and almost white. This is a very graceful falcon that quickly gets used to the company of people and masters hunting skills well. You can learn more about the problems of this amazing species, its lifestyle, habits, extinction problems in this publication.

Origin of the species and description

 Photo: Saker Falcon

Photo: Saker Falcon

This species during its existence was subject to rampant hybridization and incomplete sorting of lines, which greatly complicates the analysis of data on DNA sequences. Molecular studies with small sample sizes cannot be expected to show reliable findings across the entire group. Radiation of the entire living diversity of Saker Falcon ancestors, which took place during the interglacial at the beginning of the Late Pleistocene, is very difficult.

Video: Saker Falcon

The Saker Falcon is a lineage that spread from northeast Africa deep into southeast Europe and Asia through the eastern Mediterranean region. In captivity, the Mediterranean Falcon and the Saker Falcon can interbreed, and hybridization with the Gyrfalcon is also possible. The common name saker falcon comes from Arabic and means “falcon”.

Interesting fact: Saker Falcon is a Hungarian mythological bird and the national bird of Hungary. In 2012, the Saker Falcon was also chosen as the national bird of Mongolia.

The Saker Falcons on the northeastern edge of the ridge in the Altai Mountains are slightly larger, darker, and more conspicuous in the lower parts than other populations. They, known as the Altai falcon, were considered in the past either as a separate species «Falco altaicus», or as a hybrid between Saker Falcon and Gyrfalcon, but modern research suggests that it is presumably a form of Saker Falcon.

Appearance and Features

Photo: Saker Falcon

Photo: What the Saker Falcon looks like

The saker falcon is slightly smaller than the gyrfalcon. These birds show variation in color and color pattern, ranging from a fairly uniform chocolate brown to a cream or straw base with brown stripes or streaks. Balabans have white or pale spots on the inner tissues of the tail feathers. Since the coloration is usually paler under the wing, it has a translucent appearance when compared to the dark underarms and feather tips.

Female Saker Falcons are noticeably larger than males and usually weigh from 970 to 1300 g, have an average length of 55 cm, a wingspan of 120 to 130 cm. 100 to 110 cm. The species has faint “antennae” in the form of dark stripes on the sides of the head. After molting in the second year of life, the wings, back and tail of the bird acquire a dark gray tint. Blue feet turn yellow.

Fun Fact: Saker Falcons vary greatly in traits and coloration throughout their distribution range. European populations remain in favorable feeding conditions in the breeding area, otherwise they move to the eastern Mediterranean or further south into East Africa.

The wings of the saker falcon are long, wide and pointed, dark brown above, slightly speckled and striped. The top of the tail is light brown. A characteristic feature is a light cream-colored head. In Central Europe, this species is easily identifiable from field bird areas, and in areas where the Mediterranean falcon (F. biarmicus feldeggi) is found, there is considerable potential for confusion.

Where does the Saker Falcon live?

Photo: Saker Falcon in Russia

Photo: Saker Falcon in Russia

Saker falcons (often referred to as “saker falcons”) are found in semi-desert and forested areas from Eastern Europe to Central Asia, where they are the dominant “desert falcon”. Balaban migrate to the northern parts of southern Asia and parts of Africa for the winter. Breeding attempts have recently been noted for saker falcons as far west as Germany. This species occurs in a wide range throughout the Palearctic region from Eastern Europe to western China.

They breed in:

  • Czech Republic;
  • Armenia;
  • Macedonia;
  • Russia;
  • Austria;
  • Bulgaria;
  • Serbia;
  • Iraq;
  • Croatia;
  • Georgia;
  • Hungary;
  • Moldova.

Representatives of the species regularly winter or fly into:

  • Italy;
  • Malta;
  • Sudan;
  • Cyprus;
  • Israel;
  • Egypt ;
  • Jordan;
  • Libya;
  • Tunisia;
  • Kenya;
  • Ethiopia.

In small numbers, vagrant individuals reach many other countries. The world population remains a subject of study. Saker falcons nest in trees 15-20 meters above the ground, in parklands and open forests at the edge of the tree line. No one has ever seen a saker build its own nest. They usually occupy abandoned nests of other bird species, and sometimes even displace hosts and occupy nests. Saker falcons are known to use their nests on rock ledges in more remote areas of their range.

What does the Balaban eat?

Photo: Saker Falcon in flight

Photo: Saker Falcon in flight

Like other falcons, the saker falcons have sharp, curved claws, used primarily for grabbing prey. They use their powerful, grabbing beak to sever the victim's spine. During the breeding season, small mammals such as ground squirrels, hamsters, jerboas, gerbils, hares and pikas can make up 60 to 90% of the saker falcon's diet.

Otherwise, ground-dwelling birds such as quails, hazel grouses, pheasants and other air birds such as ducks, herons and even other birds of prey (owls, kestrels, etc.) can make up 30 to 50% of all prey, especially in more forested areas. Saker Falcons may also eat large lizards.

The main diet of the saker falcon is:

  • birds;
  • reptiles;
  • mammals;
  • amphibians;
  • insects.

The Saker Falcon is physically adapted to hunt close to the ground in open areas, combining fast acceleration with high maneuverability and thus specializes in medium-sized rodents. It preys on open grassy landscapes such as desert, semi-desert, steppe, agricultural and arid mountain areas.

In some areas, especially near water and even in urban areas, the saker falcon switches to birds as its main prey. And in some parts of Europe, it preys on pigeons and domestic rodents. The bird tracks prey in open areas, looking out from rocks and trees for prey. The saker falcon conducts its attack in horizontal flight, and does not fall on the victim from the air, like its other brethren.

Now you know how to feed the saker falcon. Let's see how the falcon lives in the wild.

Character and lifestyle features

Photo: Saker Falcon

Photo: Saker Falcon

Balaban is found in forested steppes, semi-deserts, open grasslands, and other arid habitats with scattered trees, rocks, or electrical pylons, especially near water. It can be seen perched on a rock or a tall tree, where you can easily explore the surrounding landscape for prey.

Balaban is a partial migrant. Birds from the northern part of the breeding range are highly migratory, but birds belonging to more southern populations lead a sedentary life if there is an adequate food supply. Birds wintering along the Red Sea coastline in Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Kenya breed mainly to the west of the great mountain ranges of Central Asia. Migration of Saker Falcons occurs mainly from mid-September to November, and the peak of return migration occurs in mid-February — April, the last laggards arrive at the end of May.

Fun fact: Saker Falcon hunting is an extremely popular type of falconry that is as exciting as hunting with a hawk. Birds are very attached to the owner, so they are very much appreciated by hunters.

Saker Falcons are not social birds. They prefer not to set up their nests near other breeding pairs. Unfortunately, due to habitat destruction, Saker Falcons are forced to nest ever closer together, much more than ever. In areas with abundant food Saker Falcons very often nest relatively close by. The distance between pairs varies from three to four pairs per 0.5 km² to pairs located at a distance of 10 km or more in mountainous areas and steppes. The average interval is one pair every 4-5.5 km.

Social structure and reproduction

Photo: Saker Falcon

Photo: Saker Falcon

To attract a female, males engage in spectacular displays in the air, as do many other members of the falcon family. Saker males hover over their territories, making loud noises. They end their display flights by landing near a suitable nesting site. At closer meetings with a partner or a prospective partner, Saker Falcons bow to each other.

Males often feed females during the nesting season. While courting a potential mate, the male will fly around with hanging prey from his claws, or bring it to the female in an attempt to show that he is a good food provider. In a brood there are from 2 to 6 eggs, but usually their number is from 3 to 5. After laying the third egg, incubation begins, which lasts from 32 to 36 days. In general, as with most falcons, male offspring develop faster than female offspring.

Interesting fact: Young chicks are covered with down and are born with their eyes closed, but they open them after a few days. They have two molts before they reach adult plumage. This happens when they are just over a year old.

Females reach sexual maturity about a year before males. The chicks begin flying at 45 to 50 days of age, but remain in the nesting territory for another 30–45 days, sometimes longer. If there is a large localized food source, the offspring may stay together for a while.

While in the nest, chicks chirp to get the attention of their parents if they are isolated, cold, or hungry. In addition, females may make a soft “breakaway” noise to encourage their young to open their beaks for food. When the brood is well fed, the chicks get along better than in a brood with a lack of food. In a satiating brood, the chicks share food and also explore each other as soon as they start to fly. In contrast, when food is scarce, chicks guard their food from each other and may even try to steal food from their parents.

Natural enemies of saker falcon

Photo: Saker Falcon in Winter

Photo: Saker Falcon in Winter

Saker Falcons have no known predators in the wild other than humans. These birds are very aggressive. One of the reasons why they are so prized by falconers is that once they decide to choose a victim, they become very persistent. Balaban follow their prey relentlessly even in the thickets.

In the past, they were used to attack large game such as the gazelle. The bird pursued the victim until it killed the animal. Saker falcons are patient, relentless hunters. They hover in the air or sit on their perch for hours, observing prey and fixing the exact location of their target. Females almost always dominate males. Sometimes they try to steal each other's prey.

This species suffers from:

  • electric shock on power lines;
  • reducing the availability of prey due to the loss and degradation of steppes and dry pastures as a result of the intensification of agriculture, the creation of plantations;
  • a decrease in the level of sheep breeding, and in the result of declining populations of small birds;
  • trapping for falconry, which causes local extinction of populations;
  • use of pesticides, resulting in secondary poisoning.

Annually the number of Saker Falcons caught is at the level of 6 825 8 400 birds. Of these, the vast majority (77%) are juvenile females, followed by 19% of adult females, 3% of juvenile males, and 1% of adult males, potentially creating a severe bias in the wild population.

Population and species status

Photo: What Saker Falcon looks like

Photo: What Saker Falcon looks like

An analysis of the available data resulted in a global population estimate of 17,400 — 28,800 breeding pairs, with largest numbers in China (3000-7000 pairs), Kazakhstan (4,808-5,628 pairs), Mongolia (2792-6980 pairs) and Russia (5700-7300 pairs). The small European population is estimated at 350-500 pairs, equivalent to 710-990 mature individuals. The population in Europe and probably in Mongolia is currently increasing, but the overall demographic trend is estimated to be negative.

Assuming a generation span of 6.4 years and the species had already begun to decline (at least in some areas) prior to the 1990s, the overall population trend over the 19-year period 1993-2012 corresponds to a decline of 47%. (according to average estimates) with a minimum-maximum decrease of 2-75% per year. Given the considerable uncertainty in the abundance estimates used, preliminary data indicate that this species is declining by at least 50% over three generations.

Interesting fact: Saker Sakers, due to their large size, favored by falconers, resulting in a gender imbalance among wild populations. In fact, about 90% of the nearly 2,000 falcons trapped each year during the autumn migration are females.

These numbers are ambiguous as some Saker Falcons are caught and exported illegally, so it is not possible to know the true number of Saker Falcons taken from the wild each year. Chicks are easier to train, so most trapped Saker Falcons are about a year old. In addition, many falconers release their falcons because they are difficult to care for during the hot summer months, and many trained birds run away.

Saker Falcon Conservation

Photo: Saker Falcon from the Red Book

Photo: Saker Falcon from the Red Book

This is a protected species, listed in the Red Book of many states of the range, especially in its western parts. The bird is listed on CMS Appendices I and II (as of November 2011, excluding the Mongolian population) and CITES Appendix II, and in 2002 CITES imposed a ban on trade in the UAE, which greatly affected the unregulated market there. This occurs in a number of protected areas throughout the bird range.

Intensive fortification and management has led to the fact that the population of Hungary is constantly growing. Illicit trade controls were introduced in various western range countries in the 1990s. Captive breeding has developed strongly in some countries, including the UAE, as a means of replacing wild-raised birds. Clinics have been established to increase the lifespan and availability of wild-caught birds in various Gulf countries.

Fun fact: Artificial nests have been erected in some areas, and in particular , Mongolia has begun the process of building 5,000 artificial nests funded by the Abu Dhabi Environmental Protection Agency, which are expected to provide nesting sites for up to 500 pairs. This program in Mongolia resulted in the hatching of 2,000 chicks in 2013.

The Saker Falcon is an important predator of small mammals and medium-sized birds. The Saker Falcon Global Action Plan was developed in 2014. Conservation efforts in Europe have resulted in positive demographic trends. New research programs in many parts of the range have begun to establish baseline data on distribution, population, ecology, and threats. For example, satellite tracking of individuals is carried out to detect migration and the use of breeding sites.

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