Some suggest that the Hebrew name for this bird derives from a root word meaning “to shine or sparkle” and that it here represents the flashing speed of the bird; others believe the name describes a “high-flying or soaring” bird. Modern lexicographers believe the term applies to falcons, though some consider it to embrace also hawks, which are very similar to the falcons though classified by ornithologists as in a separate “family” grouping. (The Septuagint Version, the Latin Vulgate, the Syriac Peshitta Version, and the Targums all render nets as hawk.) As predators, eating snakes, lizards, small mammals and other birds, “the falcon according to its kind” (“the hawk in its several species,” AT) was among those birds decreed “unclean” in the Mosaic law.—Lev. 11:16; Deut. 14:15.
The falcon is generally viewed as being unsurpassed as to its symmetry, power and strong speedy flight. Some of its members vie with the swift as the fastest fliers of the bird family, observers crediting one falcon with a diving speed of 180 miles (290 kilometers) per hour. Among the more common falcons found in Palestine, particularly in the central part, is the peregrine falcon, noted for its dashing qualities. As with other falcons (and also hawks) the female peregrine is larger than the male, measuring some eighteen inches (46 centimeters) in length, with a wingspread of about three feet (c. 1 meter). A rather dull-colored bird, the peregrine’s back and wings are a dusky gray, the underparts a creamy white with brownish black bars and “arrowhead” markings crossing the breast and sides. The tail is somewhat rounded. The hooked beak has a notch or tooth on the cutting edge of the upper mandible, and the short strong legs terminate in unusually large feet with powerful curved talons. Also found in Palestine are the somewhat larger lanner falcons, abundant in the cliffs and rocky gorges from Mount Hermon all the way down the Jordan valley to the Dead Sea area, and the saker falcons, occupying the high forest regions E of the Jordan.
The smaller common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), about fourteen inches (36 centimeters) long, is also a member of the same “genus” as the falcon, and in the age of British and European royal falconry it was called the “poor man’s falcon.” It resembles the North American “sparrow hawk” (Falco sparverius). It is abundant the year round throughout Palestine’s forests, gorges and gardens, and even nests on larger buildings in the cities.
Falcons differ from hawks in various ways. The falcon’s wings are longer and generally narrower than those of the hawk; the tail is also longer. Unlike the hawk, the falcon is not primarily a gliding bird, flying rather with rapid powerful strokes of its long, pointed wings. Falcon nests, located on cliffs, high trees, or even building ledges, are also usually smaller and barer than the hawk’s, some falcons only scooping out a shallow “scape” on a cliff ledge for a nest.
The hawk is considered as a smaller member of the same family as the eagle, with the same curved beak and viselike talons. It characteristically has rather short, slightly rounded wings, broader than those of the falcon. Like the falcon, it often catches its prey in full flight. The eastern sparrow hawk (Accipiter nisus) is very plentiful throughout Palestine, its diet including, among other things, sparrows (whence its name) and turtledoves. It spends the summer months in Lebanon and upper Galilee and winters in Judea and the Arabah region.
Job 39:26 describes the falcon’s ‘soaring up and spreading its wings to the south wind,’ and this is understood by some to refer to a southward migration (“spreads his wings to travel south,” JB), which would be true of the lesser kestrel of the falcon family and, to some extent, of the peregrine falcon and the sparrow hawk. Others, however, believe that the text describes the bird as turning into the oncoming wind, and, by the power of its wings, flying into it, ascending higher and higher. Falcons are said to “rise to a great height, always endeavoring to outsoar any bird of which they may be in pursuit” so as to be able to plummet down with fierce velocity upon the prey below, and in doing so they often “avail themselves of the wind, and by flying against it are borne aloft like a kite.” (Funk & Wagnalls New Standard Encyclopedia, 1931, Vol. XI, pp. 329, 330) Similarly the kestrel is often called the “windhover” because of the way it “hovers in the air, heading into the wind, and beating its wings rapidly, while watching the ground for prey.”
Both the falcon and the hawk are noted for their keen sight, that of the hawk being rated as about eight times sharper than that of man. Falconry, using falcons, hawks, and even eagles, is usually considered as having been started by the ancient Persians and has been practiced for millenniums throughout the earth. There is no evidence, however, of its practice among the Hebrews, to whom all these birds were “unclean.”—Deut. 14:12-19.
The falcon held a very prominent place in the religion of Egypt. It became the symbol of Horus, the falcon-headed god of Egypt, who, together with Isis and Osiris, formed the principal trinity or “holy family” among Egypt’s gods and goddesses. The falcon symbol was always used in writing the title of the pharaohs, and, in some cases, these rulers were considered to be incarnations of Horus. Of the hundreds of mummified birds found in Egypt, the falcon, particularly the kestrel, is among the most numerous. Herodotus said that anyone killing a falcon in Egypt even though accidentally, was put to death.
[Picture on page 562]
Female peregrine falcon
[Picture on page 563]
Falcon-headed Egyptian god Horus