The New Zealand falcon is a magpie-sized raptor that feeds predominantly on live prey. Adapted to hunt within the dense New Zealand forests they are also found in more open habitats such as tussocklands and roughly grazed hill country. More recently they have been discovered breeding in exotic pine plantations. Laying their eggs in simple scrapes they can nest in a variety of locations, from within the epiphytes that grow in large trees, to on the ground under small rocky outcrops. Where they nest on the ground they are well known for attacking intruders, including humans, with aggressive dive-bombing strikes to the head.


Often seen hunting small passerines in dramatic chases, they have long pointed wings and a long tail. Wings and tail open out into a more rounded shape when soaring. When perched they have an upside-down teardrop shaped silhouette. Males are approximately a third smaller than females. All ages have a dark eye and a distinct moustache or malar stripe running from the back of a strongly hooked bill vertically down the face. Adults have yellow legs, eye-ring and cere, are largely dark brown on the back, have a streaked cream breast and a rufous under tail and thighs. Recent fledglings and juveniles are more uniformly dark brown, lacking the defined cream streaks on the breast, and their legs, eye-ring and cere are blue-grey.

Voice: A loud ‘kek kek kek’ is commonly uttered in defence of a territory by both adults during the breeding season. The female’s call is deeper than the male’s more high pitched call. Adult females and juveniles will also ‘whine’ for food and a ‘chitter’ is often uttered during interactions between falcons.

Similar species: Sometimes confused with the swamp harrier that is commonly seen feeding on road-kill, the falcon very rarely feeds on carrion, and is smaller. Falcons are more often seen in active chasing flights rather than the lazy quartering flights typical of the harrier. The falcon lacks the obvious cream/pale rump of the harrier and glides with its wings set flat rather than in a shallow V-shape. Long-tailed cuckoo also have long pointed wings, a long tail and rapid wing beats. However falcons have a deeper wing, their tail is not quite as pronounced and their flight is less erratic. Easily distinguished by the difference in calls: the cuckoo almost always uttering its harsh chatter ‘rrrp pe-pe-pe-pe-pee’ when flying. The falcon could also be confused with vagrant raptors that occasionally arrive in New Zealand from Australia. The black kite is larger (roughly the size of a harrier) and has a distinctive forked tail. The nankeen kestrel is more delicate, has a cinnamon brown back, long slender wings and a habit of hovering which our falcon does not. The black falcon is more uniformly sooty black and has far longer more pointed wings that when folded almost reach the end of the tail.