National Geographic discusses climate change and the world’s largest falcon. Scientists are working to better understand gyrfalcons, the only raptors that stay year-round in the Arctic, the fastest-warming region on Earth.
THE GYRFALCON IS the world’s largest falcon, and one of the fastest: During long flights, it can surpass speeds of 80 miles per hour. Weighing more than three pounds, with a wingspan of four feet or more, it can take down prey twice its size.
It’s also the only Arctic raptor that doesn’t need to head south for the winter, staying behind instead to hunt prey in a frigid, dark landscape. “Any organism that can live in such a hostile environment has my respect,” says Travis Booms, a raptor biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
But the gyrfalcon faces a challenge it cannot flee or take down: The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and biologists consider gyrfalcons one of the region’s most vulnerable species, in part because they’re ultra-specialized to survive in the cold. While many species are shifting their ranges toward the cooler poles as temperatures climb, the gyrfalcon can’t go any farther north. Though they’re not currently classified as threatened with extinction, recent research in Alaska suggests there’s cause for concern.