Thursday, 18 May 2017 23:25

American Kestrel - Falco sparverius

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By Dan Potts

The American Kestrel, often referred to as the sparrow hawk, rarely hunts sparrows, which are larger than its usual prey of grasshoppers in the summer and mice in the winter.

American Kestrels also eat lizards, frogs, toads, and even small birds – almost anything small that moves!

As with most birds, the males are most distinctive with a reddish-brown back and tail contrasting with their bluish-gray wings. Females have essentially the same overall color, just more drab, with a less pronounced black and white tail band. Although females are larger than the males, both are still only about 11 inches long and are both very distinctive with their pointed wings typical of all falcons.

Both males and females have two black, vertical face stripes on a white face, typical of many falcon species. (The only other small falcon in our area is the Merlin which has only a single, faint face stripe. It mostly resides in mountainous habitats.)

Unlike other hawks an American Kestrel can fly in-place, almost like a hummingbird, over what it thinks is its prey before diving down to grab it with its sharp talons. Because virtually no other birds of that size can do this “hovering” thing, one can instantly identify this little hawk.

Seriously, what is cuter than this tiny, colorful falcon hovering in place over a field while hunting, or bobbing its distinctive tail while perching on a telephone wire?

Obviously, like most other hawks, eagles and falcons, these small birds of prey can see any motion very well, even while flying along pretty quickly.

Once they spot a field mouse (aka meadow vole) they stop in mid-air by flapping more rapidly until they decide to dive down on their unsuspecting victim, to carry it off to eat or feed to its young.

Kestrels traditionally nest in hollow trees. Their nesting sites can be found pretty easily by listening for their call, a very audible killy, killy, killy. Here in Utah that usually means big Fremont cottonwoods that have been hollowed out by northern flickers – common woodpeckers with the reddish underwings. A pair of Kestrels find such an old hollow, clean it out and rear a clutch of young.

Kestrels are typically the hawk most novice falconers choose because they are common, easily caught or taken from nests, and fun to train.

That was indeed my first experience with them.

Today I just love to watch them hover over grassy areas and to hear their familiar call.