The laughing falcon (Herpetotheres cachinnans) is named for its distinctive call, which when the bird is alarmed can resemble the insistent laughter of a human. It is also known as the snake hawk, although it is not a member of the hawk family.
Laughing falcons hunt for snakes by swooping down on their prey, landing heavily just behind the snake’s head and immediately biting down, often with enough force to decapitate the victim. They will then carry the snake to their perch to consume it.
While they will usually carry manageable snakes in their bill, laughing falcons may also use their claws to carry larger prey to their perch, where they will proceed to tear it to shreds. Laughing falcons hunt both non-venomous and venomous snakes, including coral snakes. As well as snakes, laughing falcons will also hunt lizards, small rodents, insects and bats.
Laughing falcons are quite large, and in common with other birds of prey, the females are bigger than the males. While the male can weigh up to 680 grams (1.5 pounds), females can weigh as much 800 grams (1.8 pounds) and have a wingspan of up to 94 centimeters (37 inches). In addition to its unusual call, the laughing falcon is also easily identified by its unique physical features.
The most readily identifiable physical feature of both male and female laughing falcons is their black mask, which stretches from the neck to cover the eyes on either side of the face.
Both adult males and females have a whitish to buff colored head and chest, tending towards a more brownish-buff color at the underparts. Their back and upper wings are brown, while the upper tail coverts are the same buff-white tone as the head and chest. In flight, laughing falcons can be identified by their pale, buff-colored wing patches.
Identification of laughing falcons in their rainforest habitat is also facilitated by their behavior. Slow-moving compared to other birds of prey, they tend to hunt from exposed perches with commanding views of the surrounding area, and they will regularly remain at the same perch for periods measurable in hours, patiently awaiting their prey.
Laughing falcons rarely build nests, preferring to use tree cavities or rock crevasses for nesting, and even taking over the abandoned nests of other bird species, such as the caracara, on occasion. They breed from April to May, and are believed to lay just a single egg. The young leave the nest around two months after hatching.
Across the forests of the Amazon basin, and as far north as Central America, during their breeding season the distinctive call of the otherwise solitary laughing falcon can often be heard as a duet, with nesting pairs uniting their calls at different tempos and pitches to create an unmistakable effect that may last for several minutes.
Traditionally, indigenous people in northern Mexico believed that the laughing falcon hunted snakes because it was able to cure itself of snakebites, and it was also believed that the laughing falcon’s call was a sign of coming rainfall. Unlike other falcon species, the laughing falcon does not attack smaller bird species.