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Falcons are birds of prey in the genus Falco, which includes about 40 species. Falcons are widely distributed on all continents of the world except Antarctica (though closely related raptors did occur there in the Eocene).
Adult falcons have thin, tapered wings, which enable them to fly at high speed and change direction rapidly. Fledgling falcons, in their first year of flying, have longer flight feathers, which make their configuration more like that of a general-purpose bird such as a broadwing. This makes flying easier while learning the exceptionalrequired to be effective hunters as adults.
The falcons are the largest genus in the Falconinae subfamily of Falconidae, which itself also includes another subfamily comprising caracaras and a few other species. All these birds with their beaks, using a "tooth" on the side of their beaks—unlike the hawks, eagles, and other birds of prey in the Accipitridae, which use their feet.
The largest falcon is the gyrfalcon at up to 65 cm in length. The smallest falcons are the kestrels, of which the Seychelles kestrel measures just 25 cm. As with hawks and owls, falcons exhibit sexual dimorphism, with the females typically larger than the males, thus allowing a wider range of prey species.
Some small falcons with long, narrow wings are called "hobbies", and some which hover while hunting are called "kestrels".
As is the case with many birds of prey, falcons have exceptional powers of vision; the visual acuity of one species has been measured at 2.6 times that of a normal human Peregrine falcons have been recorded diving at speeds of 200 miles per hour (320 km/h), making them the fastest-moving creatures on Earth.
The Late Latin falco is believed to derive from falx as meaning a sickle, referencing the claws of the bird. In Middle English and Old French, the term faucon refers generically to several captive raptor species.
The traditional term for a male falcon is tercel (British spelling) or tiercel (American spelling), from the Latin tertius (third) because of the belief that only one in three eggs hatched a male bird. Some sources give the etymology as deriving from the fact that a male falcon is about one-third smaller than a female (Old French tiercelet). A falcon chick, especially one reared for falconry, still in its downy stage, is known as an eyas (sometimes spelled eyass). The word arose by mistaken division of Old French un niais, from Latin presumed nidiscus (nestling) from nidus (nest). The technique of hunting with trained captive birds of prey is known as falconry.
Systematics and evolution
Compared to other birds of prey, the fossil record of the falcons is not well distributed in time. The oldest fossils tentatively assigned to this genus are from the Late Miocene, less than 10 million years ago. This coincides with a period in which many modern genera of birds became recognizable in the fossil record. The falcon lineage may, however, be somewhat older than this,and given the distribution of fossil and living Falco taxa, is probably of North American, African, or possibly Middle Eastern or European origin.
Falcons are roughly divisible into three or four groups. The first contains the kestrels (probably excepting the American kestrel);usually small and stocky falcons of mainly brown upperside color and sometimes sexually dimorphic; three African species that are generally gray in color stand apart from the typical members of this group. Kestrels feed chiefly on terrestrial vertebrates and invertebrates of appropriate size, such as rodents, reptiles, or insects.
The second group contains slightly larger (on average) species, the hobbies and relatives. These birds are characterized by considerable amounts of dark slate-grey in their plumage; their malar areas are nearly always black. They feed mainly on smaller birds.
Third are the peregrine falcon and its relatives, variably sized powerful birds that also have a black malar area (except some very light color morphs), and often a black cap, as well. Otherwise, they are somewhat intermediate between the other groups, being chiefly medium gray with some lighter or brownish colors on their upper sides. They are, on average, more delicately patterned than the hobbies and, if the hierofalcons are excluded (see below), this group typically contains species with horizontal barring on their undersides. As opposed to the other groups, where tail color varies much in general but little according to evolutionary relatedness, However, the fox and greater kestrels can be told apart at first glance by their tail colors, but not by much else; they might be very close relatives and are probably much closer to each other than the lesser and common kestrels.