The year’s still young, but I am amassing some interesting bird sightings. My very first birds of 2023 were a common raven (heard) and a red-shouldered hawk (seen) at my home on the morning of Jan. 1.
I heard the raven croaking raucously on the ridge behind my home. When I stepped onto my front porch, I startled the red-shouldered hawk from a perch at a willow growing near my fish pond. Since those sightings, I’ve added additional birds, including American kestrel, to my year list.
I’ve observed kestrels at a couple of locations, including one that favors the utility lines along Highway 107 near Bell Cemetery in Limestone Cove and another one that I’ve seen perching on power lines near Rolling Hills between Unicoi and Erwin.
The American kestrel is a small member of the falcon family, which includes such relatives as merlin, peregrine falcon and gyrfalcon. All falcons, regardless of size, share a similar aerodynamic design that includes sleek, streamlined bodies and long, slim wings which taper to pointed tips. They fly with rapid wingbeats and are capable of swift flight.
The American kestrel, although present throughout the year in the region, is somewhat more prominent during the winter months when kestrels from farther north migrate into the region. However, this falcon also nests in the region and can be found at any time of the year in suitable habitat, which is usually open countryside.
The male American kestrel is a colorful bird. He shows a rusty back with some black barring, a rusty tail and steel blue-gray wings. The female kestrel is brownish with black barring on her back and tail. She also shows a buff-colored wash streaked with brown on her under- parts. Both sexes show a strong facial pattern marked by two black “sideburns” on the side of the face.
The American kestrel has long been one of my favorite raptors. They’re seldom as skittish as many other raptors and will permit close observation. Formerly known by the name “Sparrow Hawk,” the American kestrel does not feed entirely on other birds. In fact, a large part of this small falcon’s diet includes rodents and insects.
The kestrel is one of the birds I remember from my childhood “Golden Guide to Birds” book. Raptors are not normally regarded as colorful birds, but the paintings in these little books perfect for child-sized hands showed a beautiful bird with different hues visible in its plumage.
Like many raptors, the American kestrel likes to hunt from a perch, swooping down on unsuspecting prey. The kestrel, however, is also capable of hovering, a type of flight that only a relatively few birds, including the belted kingfisher and the ruby-throated hummingbird, are capable of performing.
In its nesting preference, the American kestrel is unusual among other native falcons and hawks. Kestrels nest in cavities, including abandoned woodpecker holes and nest boxes provided by humans.
The falcons comprise a family of birds with a long history with humans. The sport of falconry, although not as widely practiced today, long ago became associated with royalty and nobility. In fact, falconry has been called “the sport of kings.” The sport basically involved hunting prey, usually other birds, with birds of prey such as falcons. As a pastime, falconry never became as popular in the United States as in other parts of the world.
There are more than 60 species of falcons found worldwide. While the peregrine falcon’s endangered status became well-known in the United States, other falcons have been threatened with extinction. The Mauritius Kestrel once dwindled to a population of only six individuals. Today, the population, due to intensive human effort, has greatly recovered.
Other members of the falcon family can be found in the region, including the peregrine falcon and the merlin. Other falcons in North America include the prairie falcon and the Aplomado falcon. Worldwide, some of the more descriptively named falcons include spotted kestrel, rock kestrel, slaty-backed forest falcon, grey falcon, greater kestrel, lesser kestrel, red-footed falcon, red-necked falcon, sooty falcon and brown falcon.
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