Bird Watcher's General Store

Gyrfalcons – 12/13/11


Dear Bird Folks,

I just read that a Gyr Falcon was seen on Nauset Beach in Orleans (MA). Apparently, that’s big news in the bird world. While I have no intention of making the drive to the Cape in hopes of seeing this bird, I would like to know how to pronounce Gyr Falcon. Please enlighten me.

– Phil, Middletown, RI

No problem, Phil,

I’m happy to be your enlightener. In fact, my goal this week is to enlighten at least one person from Middletown, RI, so this works out well for both of us. To begin with, it’s not Gyr Falcon, but Gyrfalcon. I have no idea why they decided to make it one word. They never invite me to those meetings. I still can’t figure out why “Blue Jay” is two words and “bluebird” is just one. Something else that really bugs me is that “anytime” is one word, but “every time” has to be two. I get them mixed up everytime I write them. Now that we have that part of the Gyrfalcon equation cleared up, let’s move on to its pronunciation.

Many words in English aren’t always pronounced the way they look. (The word “phonics” comes to mind.) Gyrfalcon looks like it should be pronounced “gire”-falcon, starting with a hard G and rhyming with the word tire. But no, that would be too easy. In Gyrfalcon, the “g” is soft (sounding like “j” as in “George”). The “y” is short (like “myth”) and the “r” is well…still an “r”. Together they sound like “jer,” as in gerbil. Thus, the correct way to say the name of this bird is jer-falcon. But we aren’t done. Here in eastern Massachusetts, where no one ever says anything the way they should, most birders I know say “jeer”-falcon. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s because jeer rhymes with beer. Sometimes that’s all the reason people need.

Most folks probably think of falcons as sleek bird-eating predators with blazing flight speed, and this is true. But Gyrfalcons aren’t like the other falcons. They are certainly fast and love to eat birds, but they are a long way from being sleek. They are chunk-os, with the physique of a guy who stops off at Cinnabon on his way home from work everyday. Their robust size probably has to do with where they live. Gyrfalcons breed in the very high Arctic, where it gets extremely cold (or at least it used to). Up there they feed on hares, lemmings and grouse. But their food of choice is another bird with a name that is hard to pronounce, ptarmigan. Ptarmigan (the “p” is silent) are chicken-like birds that also live in the Arctic, and Gyrfalcons can’t get enough of them. Perhaps they actually do taste like chicken.

When it comes to hunting, Gyrfalcons are once again a little different. Their well-known cousin, the Peregrine Falcon, typically hunts by flying high above the ground and then attacking prey via supersonic dives. This is way too dramatic for Gyrfalcons. They can’t be bothered with all that diving. When they spot prey they just go get it. Instead of flying high, they fly low, using ridges and vegetation to hide their approach. Once Gyrfalcons decide they want to eat something, very few creatures have the speed needed to escape these powerful birds. I’ll bet many ptarmigan wish Gyrfalcons ate at Cinnabon instead.

Because Gyrfalcons are the world’s largest falcons, humans have coveted them for centuries. Before firearms were invented these birds were important tools for hunting. Many falcons were captured in places such as Iceland and sold to European kings, the only ones who could afford them. Today Iceland protects their majestic falcons and has even elevated them to the status of being their national bird. But even with protection Gyrfalcons are still occasionally poached and sold on the black market. There’s also a legal trade. With the proper permits people are allowed to raise and sell Gyrfalcons. Legally raised birds are sold to people who participate in the creepy hobby of falconry. Ish. I don’t understand a hobby that involves killing small birds for fun. Isn’t that what cats get in trouble for?

Because Gyrfalcons are from the extreme north and often live in inaccessible places, most birders never get to see them. That’s why seeing one on Nauset Beach is such a big deal. Why was it on Nauset Beach? It’s hard to know for sure why a bird wanders thousands of miles out of its normal range. It could be a young bird exploring the world for the first time. There could also be a food shortage in the Arctic, causing birds to head south to look for prey. Or perhaps this one bird was here because it got a sweet deal on a November timeshare. (The Outer Cape in November? That must have been one good sales person who sold that timeshare.)

It’s too bad you didn’t venture out of Middletown and try to see the Gyrfalcon, Phil. They are truly impressive birds. Perhaps you’ll try on another day. In the meantime, you can practice your pronunciation. Remember, it’s “jer”-falcon or (“jeer”-falcon where I live). You know, now that I think of it, the word falcon can also be tricky. Most of us say “fal-kin,” with the “al” sounding like the Al in Alan. But the snooty crowd likes to say “fawl-kin.” However, you don’t have to say fawl-kin unless you drive over to Newport. Then you’re required to talk like that.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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