The Beauty of the Orange-Breasted Falcon

The orange-breasted falcon (Falco deiroleucus) is a species of falcon found in Central and South America. These falcons can be distinguished by the orange-brown plumage on their chests and underbellies, giving them their name, as well as by their white throats and dark-colored wings and backs. Orange-breasted falcons have wingspans reaching up to 33 inches (84 centimeters) and weigh around 1.5 pounds (0.7 kg). As seen in many other birds of prey, male falcons are much smaller than females; a female orange-breasted falcon may be up to twice as large as a male, and has the largest feet compared to body size of any known falcon. 

An orange-breasted falcon at the Belize Raptor Center. Photo by Inspire EdVentures

Within their range, orange-breasted falcons can be found in deep rainforest and near sheer cliffs, which they use for nesting. As a bird of prey, orange-breasted falcons are obligate carnivores, and feed largely on bats and smaller birds. They are aerial hunters, meaning that they catch their prey from the air; they can reach speeds of up to 220 miles per hour (354 kilometers per hour) in a straight dive. However, this specialization for flight means that orange-breasted falcons are unable to take off from the ground, making them vulnerable if they end up on the forest floor. 

Orange-breasted falcons can live up to 20 years, though their lifespan is often much shorter in the wild. Rather than build their own nests, they seek out impressions or cavities in cliff faces to lay their eggs. Female orange-breasted falcons lay three eggs at a time; typically, two of the hatched chicks will survive to fledge, with the female parent acting as the main incubator and source of food until the chicks reach adulthood. 

Orange-Breasted Falcons in Belize 

The orange-breasted falcon is classified as Near-Threatened across the whole of its range; however, many countries have seen much more rapid declines. Formerly found in Costa Rica and Nicaraugua, orange-breasted falcons in Central America are now limited to Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama. In 2009, a study of nesting orange-breasted falcons in Belize and Guatemala found a sharp decline in the number of chicks successfully raised to adulthood compared to the 1990s; the study estimated that 38 breeding pairs of orange-breasted falcons existed within these two countries. Ten years later, a 2020 census of orange-breasted falcons in Belize found only 52 individuals. Despite this, Belize holds the largest currently known population of orange-breasted falcons in Central America. 

Orange-breasted falcons are especially vulnerable due to the small, isolated nature of their populations, often separated by large geographical distances. Additionally, orange-breasted falcons depend on specialized environments, meaning that even small changes to their habitats can have drastic impacts. Deforestation is a major contributor to population loss, as orange-breasted falcons are only found in or very near to mature rainforests. Though populations in the Amazon Basin are less threatened than those in Central America, deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest is expected to lead to a decline in orange-breasted falcon numbers. The population in Panama, linked closer geographically to South American orange-breasted falcons than those in Belize and Guatemala, is currently known at just 12 breeding pairs. 

 Range map of Orange-breasted Falcon (Falco deiroleucus). Adapted from : Orange-breasted Falcon. Robert Berry, Christopher L. Wood, and Brian L. Sullivan, Birds of the World. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://birdsoftheworld.org, 5 December 2020.
Link: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Falco_deiroleucus_map.svg

In Belize, raptors of all species are frequently killed to protect livestock such as chickens from predation. The Belize Raptor Center works to combat this through education and conservation initiatives. Additionally, the Belize Raptor Center rehabilitates injured birds and, in cases in which birds are unable to be released to the wild, employs “ambassador birds” to help further outreach and learning. One such ambassador is Maya, an orange-breasted falcon taken in as a young chick by the Belize Raptor Center. Maya’s small size and partial blindness due to cataracts made her a poor candidate for rehabilitation; instead, she remains at the Belize Raptor Center as a representative of her vulnerable species. 

Maya, the species ambassador at the Belize Raptor Center. Photo by Inspire EdVentures

To learn more about the Belize Raptor Center, and to meet Maya and the Raptor Center’s other ambassador birds, schedule a virtual tour with us at Raptors Live!

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Article by Kayla Windelspecht. : Kayla is a biologist and science writer specializing in ecology and conservation. She is a graduate from North Carolina State University and project manager for Inspire EdVentures since 2020.

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