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.
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
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.
Habitat and Ecology
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)
Sakers are important predators of small mammals and medium-sized birds.
Sakers have no known predators in the wild, except humans.
Life History and 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
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.
Status: wild: 10 (high) years.
Status: captivity: 25 (high) years.
Status: wild: 5 to 7 years.
Status: captivity: 15 to 20 years.
- Naldo, J., J. Samour. 2004. Causes of Morbidity and Mortality in Falcons in Saudi Arabia. Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery, 18/4: 229-241. Accessed April 22, 2005 at http://www.bioone.org/bioone/?request=get-document&issn=1082-6742&volume=018&issue=04&page=0229.
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.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Falco cherrug
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
The fact that female sakers, being larger, are preferred by falconers has led to a gender imbalance in wild populations, with males outnumbering females. In fact, about 90 percent of the almost 2,000 falcons trapped each year during the fall migration are females. These numbers cannot be reported with absolute certainty, because some sakers are illegally trapped and exported, especially in Mongolia, so it is impossible to know the true number of sakers taken from the wild each year. Juveniles are easier to train than adults, so most of the trapped sakers are around one year old. In addition, in the Middle East many falconers release their sakers because it is difficult to care for them during the hot summer months, and many trained birds escape. Basically, the number of sakers taken each year probably does not have a significant impact on the species, but the preference for female sakers does. In addition, sakers are affected by the use of pesticides (which contaminate their prey) and destruction of their habitat. A fairly recent estimate of the saker population in the wild is from 1982, when the population stood at about 100,000 pairs. That does not include juveniles, captive birds that may have later been released back into the wild, or pairs that ornithologists may have missed, so the estimate is probably on the low side. However, saker falcons an endangered.
US Migratory Bird Act: no special status
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: appendix ii
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: vulnerable
- Batdelgar, D., A. Parrot. 1998. The Illegal Export of Saker Falcons (Falco cherrug) in Mongolia. 5th World Conference on Birds of Prey and Owls: 64.
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
Status in Egypt
Regular passage visitor and winter visitor.
This is a protected and red-listed species in many range states, particularly in the western parts of its range (Baumgart 1991, 1994). It is listed on CMS Appendix I (as of November 2011, and excluding the Mongolian population) and CITES Appendix II, and in 2002 CITES imposed a trade ban on UAE, strongly affecting the unregulated market there (Fox 2002). It occurs in a number of protected areas across its range. Intensive wardening and management has produced a steadily rising population in Hungary (Baumgart 1994). Controls of illegal trade were implemented in various countries in western range in 1990s (Baumgart 1994). Captive breeding has developed strongly in some countries, including U.A.E., as a means of substituting farmed for wild-caught birds (Riddle and Remple 1994, N. Fox in litt. 2002). Clinics have also been set up to improve the longevity and availability of wild-caught birds in various Gulf states (Riddle and Remple 1994, Bailey et al. 2001). New research programmes in many parts of the range have begun to establish baseline data on distribution, population, ecology and threats. In Mongolia, the process of erecting 5,000 artificial nests has begun, funded by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, which are predicted to provide nesting sites for up to 500 pairs by 2015 (A. Dixon in litt. 2010). As a product of the resolution resulting from CMS COP10 in November 2011, a Saker Falcon Task Force was established and met for the first time in March 2012 in Abu Dhabi (U.A.E.). The task force has the objective of involving range states, partners and interested parties in the development of a coordinated Global Action Plan for the species's conservation, including a management and monitoring framework. Conservation efforts in Europe have resulted in positive population trends (A. Dixon in litt. 2012).
Conservation Actions Proposed
Maintain or implement programmes of population and habitat management throughout the range. Maintain or improve systems of wardening and customs control (including DNA sampling to check provenance of traded birds). Continue key biological research (Baumgart 1991, 1994). Enforce CITES regulations, particularly in the Middle East and Asia. Improve exportation standards including meeting IATA transportation specifications. Improve import regulations, staff capacity and practices (quarantine facilities). Monitor markets to quantify falcon trade. Develop existing microchipping schemes to help monitor and regulate trade and quantify its effects. Increase awareness of health and conservation issues among falconers. Continue studying, monitoring and censusing the species throughout its range. Maintain ecologically and socially sustainable grazing systems to ensure long-term survival of key prey species. Bring greater protection (against conversion, degradation and pollution) to key breeding environments (Baumgart 1991, Bailey et al. 2001, Fox 2002, ERWDA 2003).
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
As with all falcons, sakers may prey upon species (such as pigeons) that humans value. They are not well liked by gamekeepers.
Sakers are a favorite of Arab falconers.
Positive Impacts: pet trade ; ecotourism ; controls pest population
The saker falcon (Falco cherrug) is a very large falcon. This species breeds from eastern Europe eastwards across Asia to Manchuria. It is mainly migratory except in the southernmost parts of its range, wintering in Ethiopia, the Arabian peninsula, northern Pakistan and western China.
Description and systematics
The saker falcon is a large hierofalcon, larger than the lanner falcon and almost as large as gyrfalcon at 47–55 cm (18-22 inches) length with a wingspan of 105–129 cm (42-50 inches). Its broad blunt wings give it a shadow similar to gyrfalcon, but its plumage is more similar to a lanner falcon's.
Saker falcons have brown upperbellies and contrasting grey flight feathers. The head and underparts are paler brown, with streaking from the breast down. Males (called sakrets in falconry) and females are similar, as are young birds, although these tend to be a duller brown. The call is a sharp kiy-ee.
Adults can be distinguished from the similar lanner falcon since the lanner is blue-grey above with a reddish back to the head. However, juveniles of the two species can be very similar although the saker falcon always has a uniformly buff top of the head with dark streaks, and a less clear pattern on the sides of the head.
A further complication is that some Asian birds have grey barred upperparts; these must be separated from lanner on size, structure, and a weaker moustache stripe. Saker falcons at the northeast edge of the range in the Altai Mountains are slightly larger, and darker and more heavily spotted on the underparts than other populations. These, known as the Altai falcon, have been treated in the past either as a distinct species "Falco altaicus" or as a hybrid between saker falcon and gyrfalcon, but modern opinion (e.g. Orta 1994) is to tentatively treat it as a form of saker falcon, until comprehensive studies of its population genetics and ecology are available.
This species belongs to the close-knit hierofalcon complex. In this group, there is ample evidence for rampant hybridization and incomplete lineage sorting which confounds analyses of DNA sequence data to a massive extent; molecular studies with small sample sizes can simply not be expected to yield reliable conclusions in the entire hierofalcon group. The radiation of the entire living diversity of hierofalcons seems to have taken place in the Eemian interglacial at the start of the Late Pleistocene, a mere 130,000-115,000 years ago; the saker falcon represents a lineage that expanded out of northeastern Africa into the interior of southeastern Europe and Asia, by way of the eastern Mediterranean region.
In captivity, lanners and sakers can interbreed, and gyrfalcon-saker hybrids are also available (see bird flu experiment described in "Ecology and status").
Ecology and status
The saker falcon is a raptor of open grasslands preferably with some trees or cliffs. It often hunts by horizontal pursuit, rather than the peregrine's stoop from a height, and feeds mainly on rodents and birds. In Europe, ground squirrels and feral pigeons are the most common prey items. This species usually builds no nest of its own, but lays its 3-6 eggs in an old stick nest in a tree which was previously used by other birds such as storks, ravens or buzzards. It also often nests on cliffs.
BirdLife International categorises this bird as endangered, due to a rapid population decline, particularly on the central Asian breeding grounds. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United Arab Emirates have been the main destination for thousands of falcons caught and sold illegally for hefty sums at the black market. Kazakhstan is estimated to lose up to 1,000 saker falcons per year.
The species also faces pressure from habitat loss and destruction. The population was estimated to be between 7,200 and 8,800 mature individuals in 2004. In the United States there are several captive breeding projects. There are currently several successful breeding projects by falconers in Canada. The most dramatic decline of the saker falcon in Asia has been in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In contrast, a strongly protected and relatively abundant population persist in Hungary.
Saker nests support a species-rich assemblage of commensal insects (Merkl et al. 2004).
Saker falcons are known to be very susceptible to avian influenza, individuals having been found infected with highly pathogenic H5N1 (in Saudi Arabia) and H7N7 (in Italy) strains. Therefore an experiment was done with hybrid gyr-saker falcons, which found that 5 falcons vaccinated with a commercial H5N2 influenza vaccine survived infection with a highly pathogenic H5N1 strain, whereas 5 unvaccinated falcons died. This means that sakers could be protected from bird flu by vaccination, at least in captivity.
Egg - Muséum de Toulouse
Use in falconry
The saker falcon has been used in falconry for thousands of years, and like its very close relative the gyrfalcon is a highly regarded falconry bird. Swift and powerful, it is effective against medium and large game bird species. In recent years hybrids of saker falcons and peregrine falcons have been developed in order to provide falconers a bird with greater size and horizontal speed than the peregrine, with greater propensity for diving stoops on game than the saker.
- BirdLife International (2013). "Falco cherrug". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- Jobling, James A (1991). A Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. OUP. ISBN 0 19 854634 3.
- "Definition of saker". Collins English Dictionary. Retrieved 8 August 2012.
- Helbig et al. (1994), Wink et al. (1998), Wink et al. (2004), Nittinger et al. (2005)
- Laszlo Molnar: Saker Falcon protection in Eastern Europe
- Antelava, Natalia (5 August 2007). "Kazakhs use eagle to save rare falcon". BBC News.
- Lierz, Michael; Hafez M. Hafez, Robert Klopfleisch, Dörte Lüschow, Christine Prusas, Jens P. Teifke, Miriam Rudolf, Christian Grund, Donata Kalthoff, Thomas Mettenleiter, Martin Beer, and Timm Harder (November 2007). "Protection and Virus Shedding of Falcons Vaccinated against Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza A Virus (H5N1)". Emerging Infectious Diseases (Centers for Disease Control) 13 (11): 1667–74. doi:10.3201/eid1311.070705. PMC 3375792. PMID 18217549. Retrieved 12 June 2010.
- Beebe, Frank (1984). A Falconry Manual. Hancock House Publishers, ISBN 0-88839-978-2.
- Helbig, A.J.; Seibold, I.; Bednarek, W.; Brüning, H.; Gaucher, P.; Ristow, D.; Scharlau, W.; Schmidl, D. & Wink, Michael (1994): Phylogenetic relationships among falcon species (genus Falco) according to DNA sequence variation of the cytochrome b gene. In: Meyburg, B.-U. & Chancellor, R.D. (eds.): Raptor conservation today: 593-599. PDF fulltext
- Merkl, O.; Bagyura, J; Rózsa, L. (2004) Insects inhabiting Saker (Falco cherrug) nests in Hungary. Ornis Hungarica 14: 1-4. PDF fulltext
- Nittinger, F.; Haring, E.; Pinsker, W.; Wink, Michael & Gamauf, A. (2005) Out of Africa? Phylogenetic relationships between Falco biarmicus and other hierofalcons (Aves Falconidae). Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research 43(4) 321-331. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0469.2005.00326.x PDF fulltext
- Orta, Jaume (1994): 57. Saker Falcon. In: del Hoyo, Josep; Elliott, Andrew & Sargatal, Jordi (eds.): Handbook of Birds of the World, Volume 2: New World Vultures to Guineafowl: 273-274, plate 28. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 84-87334-15-6
- Tomek, Teresa & Bocheński, Zygmunt (2005) Weichselian and Holocene bird remains from Komarowa Cave, Central Poland. Acta zoologica cracoviensia 48A(1-2) 43-65. PDF fulltext
- Wink, Michael; Seibold, I.; Lotfikhah, F. & Bednarek, W. (1998) Molecular systematics of holarctic raptors (Order Falconiformes). In: Chancellor, R.D., Meyburg, B.-U. & Ferrero, J.J. (eds.): Holarctic Birds of Prey: 29-48. Adenex & WWGBP. PDF fulltext
- Wink, Michael; Sauer-Gürth, Hedi; Ellis, David & Kenward, Robert (2004) Phylogenetic relationships in the Hierofalco complex (Saker-, Gyr-, Lanner-, Laggar Falcon). In: Chancellor, R.D. & Meyburg, B.-U. (eds.): Raptors Worldwide: 499-504. WWGBP, Berlin. PDF fulltext
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