falcon in flight
January 17, 2014

New Study Reveals How Falcons Hunt

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Through the analysis of striking aerial video footage, a pair of researchers from Haverford College in Pennsylvania has found that falcons hunt their prey by heading them off during mid-air pursuit, according to a new report in The Journal of Experimental Biology.

Initially trying to investigate how flocks react to being hunted by birds-of-prey, study author Suzanne Amador Kane said she could find very little literature on how falcons pursue their quarry.

“There were computational studies… that simulated this behavior,” but no published behavioral studies, Kane said.

The team said a BBC documentary inspired them to mount miniature cameras on falcons to get a direct view of their predatory habits. The idea led to collaborations with various falconers around the world who agreed to mount cameras on their birds.

“We used social media and networked with falconers, even going to a falconry convention to make connections,” Kane said. “It took a few years to assemble the full team.”

After capturing countless hours of video, Kane and her undergraduate co-author Marjon Zamani meticulously tracked the prey's position frame-by-frame to reconstruct each chase from the falcon's point-of-view.

[ Watch the Video: Amazing footage of how falcons catch their prey ]

The research team analyzed three potential strategies the falcons might use to pursue prey, but concluded that only one model agreed with the videos. The team found that the falcons appear to use a strategy called motion camouflage that involves heading off prey in mid-flight. This strategy allows the predator to intercept the prey in the least amount of time while masking its approach. The team also found that some ostensibly dangerous prey maneuvers can be interpreted as an attempt to counter the motion camouflage strategy.

Kane noted that humans use a similar strategy, albeit in different scenarios than falcons.

“Think about chasing a toddler around in the playground: they keep zigging and zagging away from you…so you just have to head them off,” Kane laughed.

The researcher added that there are now 13 falconers around the world helping with the on-going research project.

“Five of them worked on this study and there is a larger group working on two related projects also involving our undergraduates,” Kane said.

The team from Haverford presented their findings at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology in Austin, Texas and said their work has been getting some attention.

“I was taken aback by all of this interest,” Kane said, “But falcons are magnificent, charismatic animals and the falcon’s-eye videos of their hunts are very exciting. I can still say that, even though I have spent hours studying them frame by frame using image analysis software. This is truly nature red in tooth and claw. There is something really primal and moving about watching that elemental struggle between predator and prey.”

She added that the attention being given to the study is a testament to the hard work of the students at Haverford.

“We are always working in competition with much bigger groups at research universities, but I’m always amazed at how much our students can get done in their summer research and senior theses,” she said. “I’m also inspired by how passionately they devote themselves to their work.”

Image 2 (below): Associate Professor of Physics Suzanne Amador Kane (center) in the field with student researchers Alyssa Mayo '13 (right), and Marjon Zamani '13 (left). Zamani co-authored a just-published scientific paper with Kane.