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Country Ecology: American kestrel

I haven't seen an American kestrel for a while now. During summers, I enjoyed seeing this smallest of our falcons hovering over some meadow, focusing on a small mouse or grasshopper below in the deep grass. This fluttering just above their hidden target before plunging upon it is called "kiting." They hold their position over the ground into the wind.

Kestrels' decreasing in New Hampshire may have to do with loss of reproductive habitat, as in tree-lined field borders for their nest sites. But, they were reported in ASNH's summer of 2011's NH Bird Records as having slightly higher numbers across the state, and widespread. The same publication mentioned an oddity of a kestrel banded in Maryland nesting in Manchester. It had chosen a cavity in a brick wall of the Waumbec Mill on Commercial Street. A photo of the female bird showed it to be banded. Closer examination revealed its alpha-numeric code on a two-color plastic/vinyl band had been placed on it at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport on March 25, 2008. It had been released the same day at Maryland's Sandy Point State Park, in a program to trap and relocate raptors away from the airport. Staff biologists said that at least 62 American kestrels had been struck there since 2004.

This beautiful little falcon, formerly called the sparrow hawk, commonly reproduces in hollow trees. They breed in open areas with a few adjacent trees containing cavities, or in forest edges near meadows. Sometimes flickers have constructed these holes in larger snags, about 10 to 35 feet up.

It will accept a man-made nest box, that is fairly large, and which doubles as a screech owl box, too. I never had anyone order a kestrel box specifically, but I sure did have many orders for screech owl nest boxes in Texas birding specialty stores. It seems that if one had a screech owl roosting in the heavy 16-18 pound box that the neighborhood loved you for it--as they hunt the rats that come out nocturnally to feed on whatever bird seed you have put out. The fierce little owls can consume small songbirds, too, but I suppose that is outweighed by rodent control if you're having rat problems.

The birdhouse for both kestrels and screech owls has a round, three-inch wide entrance hole. The front of the box is eight-inches in width by perhaps 16 to 18 inches in length. Interior dimensions are also eight-by-eight inches. I made that model out of 10-inch wide, silvered white pine boards; my gimmick in sales was the "natural log-front," which was a wide slab from small band-saw mills to look like a genuine tree cavity. I was very popular in major birding stores, selling these largely in Houston and Dallas. But, it was laborious making up to 24 of them for the Christmas season.

Of interest, was that I also supplied shavings from my drill press for those boxes. Screech owls required a floor covering of chips and sawdust, but the kestrel does not. Apparently, like other falcons, it will lay eggs on the raw cavity's floor or "scrape," not adding any nesting material at all. I always threw in a bag of shavings regardless. However, I have read that the female parent bird will shove such aside when included. She will also vigorously resist intrusion, and will stay on the four or five eggs until picked up by the human monitoring her incubating progress.

Kestrels will perch on a roadside telephone pole or wire as they intensely scan open countryside for small prey, flicking their tail up and down as they do so. They eat many insects as a staple, especially grasshoppers, crickets and beetles. Small reptiles and amphibians are taken, too, along with shrews and voles.

This is a beautiful little falcon, as the males and females differ in their striking plumage, but not in their nine to 12 inch long size. The handsome little hawk is scarcely bigger than a robin, and has the long, slender pointed wings of the falcon family. The adult male has a rufous crown, rusty breast, back and tail — with a black banded tip. You will note Buffy underparts with dark spots. Both he and his female have two conspicuous, vertical black stripes contrasting on the white sides of their distinctive heads; this looks like the protective helmet sparring partners wear in boxing. They apparently pair bond for life.

The male has blue-gray wings while she has a russet colored back, barred heavily with black. Her tail has darker horizontal bands. In ornithological talk, this makes them the only "sexually dimorphic" North American raptor by color vs. Size. It is enjoyable to regard great photographs of these colorful pairs; their beauty is incredibly artistic in design. Blue and cinnamon are words that come to mind looking at them.

Dave Eastman also broadcasts "Country Ecology" four times weekly over WMWV 93.5 fm. As Vice President of the Lakes Region Chapter/ASNH, he welcomes you to monthly programs at the Loon Center in Moultonborough. He is available at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (or) www.countryecology.com for consultation.
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