The American Kestrel is the smallest member of the Falcon Family in North America; measuring only 10 ½ inches in length, about the size of a robin, with a wingspan of 23 inches, and weighs just 3.9 ounces. It is relatively easy to see, perched on power lines next to back country roads. From these elevated perches the birds can look down into the grassy ditches below and spot their favored insect or rodent prey.
Because it is a falcon, the wings are long, tapered and pointed; all the better for fast flight and dives. It will also beat those wings rapidly, in order to hover in one place over a field as it looks for prey. Other characteristics of the falcon family are the notched beak which is used to snap the neck of their prey, killing it quickly, and a black streak below each eye, which helps cut down on glare when the birds are in a stoop and diving on their prey.
The Kestrel is more colorful than any other raptor. In fact, one field guide I own (Smithsonian Handbook of Birds of North America – Eastern Region) has a photo of a male Kestrel front and center on the cover. The males have a deep rusty brown back and tail, slate grey on the wings and head, white on the cheeks, and a buffy, black streaked breast.
If you hear a loud, high pitched and repetitive call of ‘killy, killy, killy’ (also described as klee, klee, klee, klee) you know there is a kestrel nearby.
Kestrel’s favorite and most easily caught food are grasshoppers. But they will also catch and eat beetles, moths, caterpillars and dragonflies. Being opportunists they will also take mice, voles and an occasional reptile or small bird.
I have had the good fortune of working with Kestrels for educational purposes. One of the things I found most fascinating was the bird’s ability to hold its head in one place, even as I moved its body while it was sitting on my gloved hand. It was the strangest sight, but it made perfect sense. If the Kestrel was sitting on a wire or tree branch that was swinging in the wind and it had its eye on some ‘food’ on the ground, the ability to hold its head still and continue to focus on that animal might be the difference between going hungry or not.
Kestrels normally nest in the cavities of dead trees, but they will also use human made boxes mounted on tall poles. These must be made to specific dimensions, but once chosen, the birds will defend them against other intruders and you will be entertained for weeks by the flights and calls of the parents as they make the endless feeding forays for their chicks. After about a month, the young will emerge for their inaugural flights. They will continue to be fed by their parents for another 12 days, after which they must fend for themselves. Soon they too will be patrolling the fields and ditches for tasty morsels of protein, building up body fat and muscle, in preparation for the journey south in the fall. But for the next four and half months they are here to add beauty and variety to our surroundings