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Overview

Brief Summary

Biology

As the breeding season commences in spring, males begin to perform spectacular aerial displays as a form of courtship ritual to attract females, calling loudly as they soar over their territories. Saker falcons are generally two to three years old before they begin to breed, after which one brood of two to six eggs will be produced annually by the female. Chicks are able to fly after 45 to 50 days, but remain dependant on their parents for food for at least another 30 to 45 days, during which time they stay within the nesting territory (2) (7). The saker falcon can be both highly agile and extremely fast as it hunts close to the ground (6), capable of diving for prey at 200 miles per hour (4). Prey consists largely of mid-sized mammals such as ground squirrels, voles, gerbils, jerboas, stoats and hares (2) (4) (7). At other times, and particularly near water, ground-dwelling and aerial birds such as pheasants, oriental honey-buzzards, quail, ducks, owls, thrushes, larks and songbirds form a significant proportion of the diet (2) (6) (7). The saker falcon is a ferocious hunter and frequently attacks prey larger than itself (4).
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Description

A great favourite with falconers, the saker falcon is a large, powerful bird of prey with an exceptionally broad wingspan for its size (4). Like other falcons, this bird is equipped with sharp, curved talons for grasping prey, while the strong, hooked beak is used to tear its victim's flesh (2). 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, which are particularly prized by Arab falconers (2) (5). Female saker falcons are markedly larger than males (2).
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Distribution

Range Description

Falco cherrug occurs in a wide range across the Palearctic region from eastern Europe to western China, breeding in Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia & Montenegro, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Turkey, Iraq, Armenia, Russian Federation, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China, and at least formerly in Turkmenistan and probably Afghanistan, possibly India (Ladakh), with wintering or passage populations regularly in Italy, Malta, Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, South Sudan, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, U.A.E., Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan, with much smaller numbers or vagrants reaching many other countries (Baumgart 1991, 1994, Snow and Perrins 1998, Haines 2002, ERWDA 2003). The historical and present global population size remains subject to considerable uncertainty; however, a revised analysis of available data has resulted in a global population estimate of c.17,400-28,800 breeding pairs (median c.22,100) in 1990, incorporating estimates for the most important range states as given by Moshkin (2010), with the largest numbers in China (3,000-7,000 pairs, median 5,000), Kazakhstan (4,808-5,628 pairs, median 5,218), Mongolia (2,792-6,980 pairs, median 3,884) and Russia (5,700-7,300 pairs, median 6,500), in addition to collated estimates for other countries (Haines 2002, Dixon 2007, 2009). A total population of c.6,400-15,400 pairs (median c.10,900) is calculated for 2010, including the most important range states of China (1,000-5,000 pairs, median 3,000 [A. Dixon in litt. 2012]), Kazakhstan (800-1,450 in 2011; median 1,125 pairs [A. Dixon and A. Levin in litt. 2012]), Mongolia (2,000-5,000 pairs, median 3,500 [Dixon 2009]) and Russia (1,854-2,542 in 2007, median 2,198 [Karyakin 2008]), and collated estimates for other countries (Haines 2002, Dixon 2007, 2009). The populations in Europe, and probably in Mongolia, are now increasing (A. Dixon in litt. 2012), but the overall population trend is estimated to be negative. Assuming a generation length of 6.4 years and that the decline in the species's population had already begun (at least in some areas) prior to the 1990s (consumption in the Middle East was heavy by the mid-1980s), the overall population trend during the 19-year period 1993-2012 equates to a 47% decline (based on median estimates), with a minimum-maximum decline of 2-75%. Given considerable uncertainty over the population estimates used, the species is precautionarily estimated to be declining by at least 50% over three generations.

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Saker falcons (often simply called “sakers”) occur in the semi-desert and forest regions from Eastern Europe to central Asia, where they are the dominant “desert falcon.” Saker falcons migrate as far as northern parts of southern Asia and parts of Africa for the winter. Recently (in 1997), sakers have been observed breeding as far west as Germany.

Biogeographic Regions: palearctic (Native ); oriental (Native )

  • Baumgart, W. 1998. New Developments on the Western Border of the Saker falcon (Falco cherrug) range in Middle Europe. 5th World Conference on Birds of Prey and Owls: 17-18.
  • Cade, T. 1982. The Falcons of the World. London: Cornell University Press.
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Range

The saker falcon is a wide-ranging species with a breeding distribution across the Palaearctic region from Eastern Europe to western China (6). After the breeding season, many populations migrate further south and spend winter in China (7), India, the Mediterranean, Middle East, and parts of Africa (2) (6).
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Physical Description

Morphology

Sakers exhibit great variation in color and pattern, ranging from a fairly uniform chocolate brown color to a cream or straw base with brown bars or streaks to brown-eyed leucistic individuals, which are especially prized by Arab falconers. In general, sakers have white or pale spots on the inner webs of their tail feathers, rather than the bars of color that are common among other desert falcons. As the underwing is usually pale, it has a translucent appearance when contrasted against the dark axillaries and primary tips.

Saker females are markedly larger than males; females typically weigh 970 to 1300 g (average 1135 g), have an average length of 55 cm, and a wingspan of 120 to 130 cm. Males usually weigh from 730 to 990 grams (average 840 g), are about 45 cm long on average, and have a wingspan of 100 to 110 cm.

As with other falcons, sakers have sharp, curved talons, used primarily for grasping prey. Sakers use their powerful, hooked beak to sever the prey’s vertebral column.

Range mass: 730 to 1300 g.

Average length: 45 cm for males, 55 cm for females cm.

Range wingspan: 100 to 130 cm.

Average wingspan: 105 cm for males, 125 cm for females cm.

Sexual Dimorphism: female larger

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry

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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
It is physically adapted to hunting close to the ground in open terrain, combining rapid acceleration with high manoeuvrability, thus specialising on mid-sized diurnal terrestrial rodents (especially ground squirrels Citellus) of open grassy landscapes such as desert edge, semi-desert, steppes and arid montane areas; in some areas, particularly near water, it switches to birds as key prey, and has recently substituted domestic pigeons for rodents in parts of Europe (Baumgart 1991, Snow and Perrins 1998). It uses copses or cliffs for nest sites (sometimes even the ground), occupying the old nests of other birds (Baumgart 1991, Snow and Perrins 1998). Clutch size varies from two to six, with means from 3.2-3.9 in different circumstances (Baumgart 1991, Snow and Perrins 1998). Breeding success varies with year (especially in areas where rodents cycle) (Baumgart 1991, Snow and Perrins 1998). The species usually occurs singly or in pairs (Ferguson-Lees and Christie 2001). Birds are sedentary, part-migratory or fully migratory, largely depending on the extent to which food supply in breeding areas disappears in winter (Baumgart 1991, Snow and Perrins 1998). Migrant birds winter in East Africa, southern Europe and southern Asia, and generally leave their breeding grounds in September and October, returning between February and May (del Hoyo et al. 1994).


Systems
  • Terrestrial
  • Freshwater
  • Marine
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Sakers occupy stick nests in trees, about 15 to 20 meters above the ground, in parklands and open forests at the edge of the tree line. No one has ever observed a saker falcon building its own stick nest; they generally occupy abandoned nests of other bird species, and sometimes even drive owners from an occupied nest. In the more rugged areas of their range, sakers have been known to use nests on cliff ledges, about 8 to 50 meters above the base.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: tundra ; taiga ; forest ; scrub forest ; mountains

  • Anderson, S., J. Squires. 1997. The Praire Falcon (Section 3-Prairie Falcons and Other Raptors). Austin: University of Texas Press.
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The saker falcon prefers open terrain for hunting, such as forest steppe, desert steppe and arid montane areas (6). Nesting usually occurs in old abandoned nests of other birds situated on the ground, on cliffs, rocks, sandy precipices or trees, as well as on artificial structures such as poles, pylons and abandoned buildings (6) (7).
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Trophic Strategy

During the breeding season, small mammals such as ground squirrels, hamsters, jerboas, gerbils, hares, and pikas may constitute 60 to 90% of a saker pair’s diet. At other times, ground-dwelling birds such as quail, sandgrouse, pheasants, and more aerial birds such as ducks, herons, and even other raptors (owls, kestrels, and harriers) can account for 30 to 50% of all prey, especially in more forested areas. Sakers may also eat large lizards.

Animal Foods: birds; mammals; amphibians; reptiles; insects

Foraging Behavior: stores or caches food

Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats terrestrial vertebrates)

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Associations

Sakers are important predators of small mammals and medium-sized birds.

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Sakers have no known predators in the wild, except humans.

Known Predators:

  • Humans

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

As mentioned before, a female saker will make a “chip” noise to prompt her young to open their beaks for food, and they will chirp to get a parent’s attention. Male sakers call during their aerial displays in order to attract or impress a female, and if the female accepts the male, she may join in the calling at the end. Sakers may often call aggressively to drive off intruders from the nest or a freshly killed meal.

Sakers, like other falcons, communicate fairly often by posturing. The most aggressive display is the Upright Threat; the bird stands up straight, spreads its wings and fluffs out its facial feathers, hisses, cackles, and strikes with the feet. This display is used by adult falcons in defense of the young, and by feathered nestlings against nest intruders. Sakers also use bowing to appease a mate, and communicate submission with a modified version of bowing, in which the beak is pointed to the side.

Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic

Other Communication Modes: duets

Perception Channels: visual ; ultraviolet; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

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Life Expectancy

Falcons used for hunting are still subject to many of the same causes of mortality as those in the wild, including several bacterial and viral diseases, parasites, bumblefoot disease, lead and ammonium chloride poisoning, and injuries incurred from impacting or struggling with prey, to name a few.

Although most wild individuals are expected to live from 5 to 7 years, a few of these birds have been known to live for as long as 10 years. Captive animals tend to live longer than their wild counterparts. In captivity, sakers are expected to live from 15 to 20 years, but may reach a maximum age of about 25 years.

Range lifespan

Status: wild:
10 (high) years.

Range lifespan

Status: captivity:
25 (high) years.

Typical lifespan

Status: wild:
5 to 7 years.

Typical lifespan

Status: captivity:
15 to 20 years.

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Reproduction

In order to attract females, male sakers engage in spectacular aerial displays, in common with many other members of the genus Falco. Male sakers soar over their territories, calling loudly. They end their display flights by landing on or near a suitable nesting site.

In closer encounters with a mate or prospective mate, sakers bow to each other, and many interactions incorporate some element of bowing. Males also often feed their mates during the nesting period. When wooing a potential mate, a male will fly around, dangling prey from his talons, or will bring it to the female in an attempt to prove that he is a good provider.

Mating System: monogamous

Sakers are generally two to three years old before they begin breeding. There can be 2 to 6 eggs per brood, but generally the number is between 3 and 5 (on average 4). After the third egg is laid, full incubation begins, and usually lasts for about 32 to 36 days. In general, as is true for most falcons, males offspring develop faster than females.

The young hatch with their eyes closed, but they open in a few days. They have two downy nestling plumages before attaining juvenile plumage. They attain adult plumage when a little over a year old, after their first annual molt.

Females reach sexual maturity about a year before males; they occasionally breed in their first year, but usually not until their second or third year, and some wait until their fourth year. Males, on the other hand, begin breeding in their second year at the very earliest; most wait until the third or fourth year, and some males don’t begin breeding until their fifth year.

Breeding interval: Saker falcons breed once a year.

Breeding season: Sakers breed in the springtime. Copulation may occur as often as several times a day for a period of 4 to 8 weeks before any eggs are laid.

Range eggs per season: 2 to 6.

Range time to hatching: 32 to 36 days.

Range fledging age: 45 to 50 days.

Range time to independence: 65 to 85 days.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 1 to 4 years.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 2-3 years.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 2 to 5 years.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 3-4 years.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization ; oviparous

Young sakers begin to fly at about 45 to 50 days of age, but remain within the nesting territory, dependent on their parents for food, for another 30 to 45 days, and occasionally longer. If they encounter a large localized source of food, brood mates may remain together for some time.

While still in the nest, chicks chirps to get a parent’s attention if they are isolated, cold, or hungry. In addition, females may make a soft “chip” noise to prompt their young to open their beaks to receive food. Mothers will pass over a chick that is begging but has a full crop in order to feed a chick that has not eaten enough. When a brood is well-fed, the chicks get along better than in a brood subject to food scarcity. In a well-fed brood, the chicks share food as well as explore with each other once they begin to fly. In contrast, when food is scarce, chicks guard their food from one another, and may even try to steal food from their parents. If a chick dies and the rest of the brood is hungry, they will eat their dead sibling, but fratricide has never been observed.

Parental Investment: altricial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Male, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Male, Protecting: Male, Female); post-independence association with parents; extended period of juvenile learning

  • Anderson, S., J. Squires. 1997. The Praire Falcon (Section 3-Prairie Falcons and Other Raptors). Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Cade, T. 1982. The Falcons of the World. London: Cornell University Press.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Statistics of barcoding coverage: Falco cherrug

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
EN
Endangered

Red List Criteria
A2bcde+3cde+4bcde

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2015

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

Reviewer/s
Butchart, S.

Contributor/s
Andersen, M., Attila, M., Balazs, I., Burfield, I., Dixon, A., Fox, N., Galushin, V., Iankov, P., Kamp, J., Karyakin, I., Katzner, T., Kenward, R., Kovcs, A., Levin, A., Luca, D., Nagy, A., Nagy, S., Nikolenko, E., Olvedi, S., Onon, Y., Parau, L., Pechacek, P., Potapov, E., Prommer, M., Sandor, A., Shobrak, M., Spasov, S. & Spina, F.

Justification
This species has been uplisted to Endangered because a revised population trend analysis indicates that it may be undergoing a very rapid decline. This negative trend is a result of unsustainable capture for the falconry trade, as well as habitat degradation and the impacts of agrochemicals, and the rate of decline appears to be particularly severe in the species's central Asian breeding grounds. This classification is highly uncertain and may be revised when new information becomes available. Surveys are urgently needed to produce more robust and less uncertain population estimates, in particular for China, Russia and Mongolia. Further research to monitor key populations and to clarify the extent of the threat from trapping and its effect on population trends is vital.


History
  • 2013
    Endangered (EN)
  • 2012
    Endangered (EN)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Endangered (EN)
  • Endangered (EN)
  • Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
  • Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
  • Near Threatened (NT)
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