John Adams recently emailed me a photograph of a female American Kestrel that he took near the Elizabethton Municipal Airport on the last day of 2011. His email reminded me of my long-time fondness for this small raptor, which was known as the “Sparrow Hawk” when I was a boy.
Many raptors are “big brown birds,” and require some attention to detail to differentiate. Not so the American Kestrel, which is a rather colorful raptor. American Kestrels are found throughout most of North, Central and South America. They make their home in locales ranging from tropical lowlands and deserts to urban areas and agricultural lands. No matter where they call home, some requirements include open habitats that offer plenty of nesting cavities and hunting perches.
I know several locations for finding American Kestrels in the area during the winter months. I also know a few spots where they can reliably be found at other times of the year. The fields near the Betsytowne Shopping Center along Highway 19E provide good winter habitat.
The American Kestrel is a small, slender member of the falcon family. In overall size, an American Kestrel is not much bigger than an American Robin.
This small falcon has a body length of 9 to 12 inches, a wingspan of 20 to 24 inches and weighs no more than 5-1/2 ounces. Falcons are distinguished from other raptors by their long, pointed wings and long tails. Falcons are swift, graceful birds in flight. The American Kestrel can also hover in place while hunting over an open field.
The American Kestrel is easily recognized by two vertical black lines on the cheeks and a rufous-colored back and tail. The female has rufous-colored wings while the male has black-banded, blue-gray wings. The female is bigger than her mate, which is typical of most birds of prey. However, among falcons, only the American Kestrel shows such distinct differences in appearance between males and females.
The colorful plumage of the American Kestrel is likely what fascinated me as a kid thumbing through the pages of my little Golden Guide to Birds of North America. The colorful little “hawk” looked every bit as interesting as such vibrant birds as Indigo Bunting, Scarlet Tanager and Baltimore Oriole.
The old common name of Sparrow Hawk for the American Kestrel was a bit of an exaggeration. While an American Kestrel would certainly not pass up an opportunity to capture a sparrow or other small bird for a meal, its diet consists largely of flying insects, such as grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies, moths and cicadas. Small rodents — mice, voles and shrews — are also taken. Small snakes, frogs and songbirds supplement the diet of the American Kestrel, which typically hunts from a lofty perch. Utility lines, barbed wire fences and bare tree branches all offer an attractive perch for one of these small falcons. There are some reports of American Kestrels tackling larger prey, including squirrels and birds as large as Northern Flickers.
Two other falcons, although much less common than the American Kestrel, occur in Northeast Tennessee. The Merlin, once known as the “Pigeon Hawk,” and the Peregrine Falcon, formerly known as the “Duck Hawk,” are uncommon enough to always generate some excitement when observed in the region.
There’s even a way to distinguish the American Kestrel from the related Merlin when viewing from a distance. Kestrels have a habit of pumping their tail feathers up and down when perched, especially just after landing.
While the Peregrine Falcon holds the record for swiftest bird, the American Kestrel is also known for rapid flight and has been recorded flying at speeds between 22 and 39 miles per hour.
Kestrels are quite vocal birds. When they are excited or alarmed, these falcons produce a loud, repeated “killy, killy killy” call.
The falcons and related caracaras comprise the family Falconidae, which numbers about 60 species. Some inventive names have been used to describe the several species in this family. Some examples include Barred Forest Falcon, Plumbeous Forest Falcon, Laughing Falcon, Pygmy Falcon, White-rumped Falcon, Collared Falconet, Black-thighed Falconet, Sooty Falcon, Spotted Kestrel and Orange-breasted Falcon.
The Gyrfalcon, which breeds along Arctic coasts and remote regions of North America, Europe and Asia, is the largest species in the falcon family. As with most raptors, the female Gyrfalcon is larger than her mate. She has a body length of up to 26 inches and a 64-inch wingspan. A female Gyrfalcon can reach a weight of 4.6 pounds.
The title of smallest falcon is a toss-up between the Black-thighed Falconet of Southeast Asia and the White-fronted Falconet of the island of Borneo. These small falcons average size about six inches in length and weigh only a little more than an ounce.
Six falcons are native to the United States. The Gyrfalcon can be found in Alaska. The other five falcons include the Aplomado Falcon, Prairie Falcon, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin and American Kestrel.
Some other interesting facts about the American Kestrel and its falcon relatives include:
• The American Kestrel is the smallest and most numerous of North America’s falcons.
• While the young birds are practicing their hunting skills, kestrels will often hunt in family units.
• American Kestrels are cavity-nesting birds, but they will accept artificial nest boxes as well as cavities in a tree.
• Falconry is the hunting of wild quarry in its natural state and habitat by means of a trained bird of prey. Historically, falconry was a popular sport and status symbol among the nobles of medieval Europe. The origins of falconry, however, date back to ancient Mesopotamia, Mongolia and China, with the earliest accounts dating to approximately 2000 B.C. In Europe, the status of individuals within the nobility dictated which raptors they were allowed to own for use in the sport.
• The world’s largest falcon, the Gyrfalcon, was highly prized in falconry. In 1276, the king of Norway sent eight gray and three white gyrfalcons to England’s Edward I as a sign of peace. Three hundred years later, in 1552, Czar Ivan IV and Queen Mary I exchanged a gyrfalcon and a pair of lions after Russia and England established diplomatic relations.
• The Peregrine Falcon is found on every continent except Antarctica, and lives in a wide variety of habitats from tropics, deserts and maritime regions to the tundra, and from sea level to 12,000 feet in elevation.
• Peregrine Falcons have proven highly adaptive and now make their home in many large cities. Cliffs have been exchanged for tall buildings with ledges for nesting. Large populations of Rock Pigeons and European Starlings provide a dependable food source for urban Peregrine Falcons.
• The Peregrine Falcon was removed from the U.S. Endangered Species list on Aug. 25, 1999. The species declined from 1950 to 1970 because of the pesticide DDT. Peregrine Falcons were eradicated from the eastern United States. By 1965, no Peregrine Falcons were fledged in the eastern or Central United States. Once they gained official protection, the population rebounded fairly quickly.
• The speed of a Peregrine Falcon has been said to reach 175 miles per hour or more. Experiments conducted by scientists put the bird’s diving speed at approximately 82 miles per hour and level flight at approximately 62 miles per hour. The record speed for the Peregrine Falcon is 202 miles per hours during a high speed dive. Its swiftness ranks the Peregrine Falcon as not only the world’s fastest bird but the fastest member of the entire animal kingdom.
• American Kestrels, especially young birds, face large mortality rates. They are preyed upon by larger raptors, including Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Barn Owl and Great Horned Owl. The average age of a wild American Kestrel is thought to be slightly under three years. The oldest wild bird on record was 11 years and 7 months old. In captivity, however, American Kestrels have lived up to 17 years.
The recent cold snap brought a lot of birds to my feeders, but the diversity didn’t really change. The usual visitors recently have included Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, Dark-eyed Juncos, Blue Jays, Song Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, Downy Woodpeckers, Carolina Wrens and American Goldfinches. I have also observed Eastern Bluebirds, Field Sparrows, Golden-crowned Kinglets and Pileated Woodpeckers away from the feeders. When the pond froze during the cold spell, the Belted Kingfisher departed. It will be interesting to see if he returns after the thaw.
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