The American Kestrel

Falco sparverius
by Carolyn Gritzmaker

Kestrels are back in the area now, and are again a common sight along the roadways.

This, the smallest member of the falcon family in North America, is one of our most colorful raptors.  Both the male and the female have a rusty back and tail, and their face has two dark stripes which look somewhat like a mustache and sideburns.  Unlike most other raptors, it is fairly easy to tell the males and females apart.  The male’s wings are blue-gray and his tail has one dark bar near the trailing edge.  The female’s wings are rusty brown and her tail has faint horizontal bars along its length.

Kestrels were once called Sparrow Hawk, both for its small size – it is just 10 ½ inches long – and because it does catch sparrows.  Its name was changed to American Kestrel several years ago because it is related to and closely resembles the Eurasian Kestrel, a rare visitor to the United States from Europe and Asia.  Our American Kestrel is known by many other common names as well:  Grasshopper Falcon, from its food; Windhover, from its hunting habits; Killy Hawk, from its call and still, Sparrow Hawk.  Its scientific name is Falco sparverius.

Sparrows are only a small part of the Kestrel’s diet.  Its food consists mainly of insects, small reptiles and frogs in the summer, changing to small rodents and birds after the weather is colder and insects are no longer available.  Most of its hunting is done in the morning and late in the afternoon. You can often see the little hawks hovering in the air on rapid wing beats, flying to a new location to hover again, then diving to catch prey on the ground below.   Most prey is taken on the ground, but Kestrels will also catch birds in flight.

Most Kestrels migrate to the north for breeding season.  A few will stay behind and nest in this area, but are extremely secretive during nesting and are rarely seen here during the summer.  They nest in holes in trees and niches in walls of buildings.  The male feeds the female throughout the nesting period.  He will call the female from the nest hole, taking the food to a special perch.  She follows, and they will bob their heads several times before she takes the food to another perch to eat.

She usually lays four or five eggs which she will incubate most of the time, the male helping some, for about 30 days.  The young will leave the nest in about 30 days, and are independent of the adults 14 days later.

Because very few Kestrels remain here year round, they are rare summer residents; abundant migrants and common winter residents, most common in our area from mid-September to mid-April.

Indian Trail Master Naturalist curriculum includes a session on “Birds of Prey” in their spring training program.  Classes are scheduled on 10 Saturdays (8:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.), from mid-March through mid-June. (Ellis County Lawn and Garden Expo and holiday weekends are excluded.)  Morning classroom presentations are typically followed by field trips. Applications are available by calling the AgriLife Extension Service at 972-825-5175.  Tuesday, Feb. 15, is the application deadline.  The $150 fee covers the manual, speakers and background check.  In return for this training, participants provide the county with at least 40 hours of volunteer service.

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