Raptor Friday: The Shaheen Falcon

Two Ogres compare notes about their respective sightings of a fast-flying falcon. Was that a Peregrine or a Shaheen?

Sandy: I saw it fly at a height where it looked like a fast-moving orange-and-black speck in the sky. The wing-flapping wasn't anywhere near furious, but every flap propelled it further ahead with amazing thrust. I managed a shot, and later identified it as a Shaheen Falcon (Falco peregrinus peregrinator). Since then I have enjoyed multiple sightings of the bird as it zipped past or perched on trees high up with no intention of leaving the place for a long time.

Arun: There is a lot of confusion between the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus calidus) and the Shaheen Falcon among newbie birders, despite the fact that both are quite distinctive in appearance. The different naming conventions followed by guidebooks and websites only deepen the confusion. Grimmett and Inskipp refers to both races as the Peregrine Falcon, while differentiating them as two sub-species. Salim Ali and Rishad Naoroji list them as two species.

The Shaheen Falcon, a resident of the Indian subcontinent, is smaller than the Peregrine Falcon, which is a winter visitor. It has a rufous wash on the underside with black speckles, whereas the Peregrine's underside is white with black speckles. The black hood over the head, the yellow ring around the eyes (similar to most other falcons), huge talons and a no-nonsense beak make these birds look mean and menacing, but they are more famous for something else! Yes - the dive!

A Shaheen shows off its wingspan near Bangalore
The birds are known to hunt other birds, at times even smaller raptors, in mid-air. They dive at a breakneck speed of over 300 kmph, the fastest recorded among birds while taking prey in mid-air in most cases. Hunts take place at dawn and dusk mostly, when the prey is most active, though night-time predation of migratory birds has also been observed. They are seen in a wide variety of habitats, and reign supreme as master hunters -- Shaheen in Persian means king of birds.

A Shaheen Falcon photographed at Dandeli

Text and Photographs: Sandeep Somasekharan and Arun Menon