• Before: What a gorgeous snowy falcon!
  • After: Hmm. Seems it’s not always snowy, or always from Iceland.

Throughout history we’ve been told to keep our grubby mitts off this beautiful northern raptor. Today is no different, but the reasons most definitely are.

Lording over the skies

Given all the wars and pestilence of the European Middle Ages, not being allowed to own a gyr(“jer”)falcon was probably bottom of most people’s lists. Nonetheless, only royalty could own and hunt with one, and 12th and 13th-century Norwegian kings often gifted them to the English. They certainly had a fan in Edward I (or Edward the Longshanks, Braveheart fans), who, when his prized falcon fell sick, had a wax likeness hung in Thomas Becket’s shrine in the hope of curing it.

White gyrfalcons were considered the most exquisite, and in his book “The Art of Hunting with Birds” (De arte venandi cum avibus), Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II gave a shout-out to Iceland as the place to find them. Portuguese geographer Martin Behaim, on his 1492 globe, also wrote of Iceland that “here, fine white falcons are found”. All well and good, but how would a falcon-fancying royal go about catching one? Easy: by finding out what the falcon fancies.

Takk for the ptarmigan!

Diddy, quail-like rock ptarmigans are top of its menu, and in the Middle Ages, a live one would be strung between two stakes, with the gyrfalcon captured as it swooped in for a suspiciously easy meal. Being roped into service would have been rubbish enough, but not all gyrfalcons were caught quite so elegantly.

Ice blast

When John James Audubon saw a new species of bird, he would shoot it for his picture book. Unfortunately he wasn’t a photographer.

In the 19th century he wrote and illustrated Birds of America, and to make sure they posed appropriately, he would fill them with lead first. After two unlucky white Iceland or Jer falcons (Falco islandicus) were peppered with shot off the coast of Labrador, Audubon set about drawing and documenting them. In his notes he whinged it was a difficult night and that his painting got rained on, so a bit of karmic retribution there. Their being off the coast of Canada was also a bit of a clue as to their true identity.

Ghosts from Greenland

Icelandic gyrfalcons are usually grey, often described as a “washed out” peregrine falcon.

The lighting probably doesn’t help.

While white morphs have been spotted, many are just the Greenland gaggle on their autumn migration. And while the Icelandic gyrfalcon has the most uniform pattern and appearance, it’s not officially considered a subspecies after all. Gah, it’s the king cheetah all over again! But, like our feline friend, it’s no less beautiful or loved.

Island idol

It’s still the national bird of Iceland, and strictly protected. You even need permission to photograph it, and motion-tracking cameras are used to nip egg-thieves in the bud. Because of course, illegal trade in gyrfalcons is still a thing. Fortunately, with a 40-year high in 2018, its population in Iceland is booming, so it’s lost none of its fascination or lust for life, even if it doesn’t officially exist.



Latin: Falco rusticolus (islandus)

What? The biggest “true” falcon, and possible subspecies thereof.

Where? High cliffs and hilly areas of Iceland, especially in the northeast.

How big? It has a wingspan of 105–135 cm / 41-53 inches, with females slightly larger than males.

Endangered? Currently Least Concern, although its eggs are threatened by the falconry market, and climate change is messing up its prey and nesting sites.

Probable motto: Tsk, you have guns, and you’re still too lazy to hunt for yourselves.

They look beautiful. Do they need my help at all?

Egg-theft for falconry is a concern, and gyrfalcons worldwide often find themselves at the wrong end of a gun or trap for other species. While it’s considered Least Concern and with a stable population, it’s affected by climate change as it can disturb prey and disrupt potential nesting areas. Fortunately, organisations like The Peregrine Fund look out for the gyrfalcon and its swooping siblings worldwide.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing:

Aitchison, Briony. 2009. “Holy cow!: the miraculous cures of animals in late medieval England“, European Review of History—Revue européenne d’histoire, 16(6):875-892.

BirdLife International. 2017. “Falco rusticolus (amended version of 2016 assessment)“. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T22696500A110639833.

Brewer, T.M. 1840. “Wilson’s American Ornithology, with notes by Jardine. To which is added, a synopsis of American birds, including those described by Bonaparte, Audubon, Nuttall and Richardson“. Otis, Broaders, and Company.

Evans, Sara. 2014. “Birdwatching in Iceland: a majestic killer rules the Arctic sky“. The Telegraph

Gyrfalcon“. No date. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Gyrfalcon“. No date. The Peregrine Fund.

Iceland, or Jer Falcon“. No date. John J. Audubon’s Birds of America. Audubon.org.

Over 100 Gyrfalcons Hatch in Iceland in 40-Year High“. 2018. Guide to Iceland Now.

Petrosillo, Sara. 2017.Predatory Poetics: Reading Weight in Thirteenth-Century Falconry Treatises“, Exemplaria 29(3):195-209

Þorbjörnsson, Kjartan. No date. “Falco Rusticolus: A day in the life of a gyrfalcon researcher“. Iceland Review.

Rohrer, Finlo. 2010. “Audubon’s Birds of America: The world’s most expensive book“. BBC News.

Vaughan, Richard. 1982. “The Arctic in the Middle Ages“.  Journal of Medieval History 8(4): 313-342.

White, C.M. et al. 2019. “Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus)“. In: del Hoyo, J. et al. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Yarrell, William. 1843. “A History of British Birds“. John Van Voorst.

Featured image credit:”Rare (Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus)” by SteveByland