Bright sunshine made the cold almost pleasant. Brilliant blue skies threw the barren trees into high relief. The gentlest of breezes played with the tawny grasses. The refuge was quiet except for a gentle rustling of the meadow and distant bird calls.
We had just pulled into the refuge’s parking lot when we saw a bird perched on a power line. The bird’s color and size immediately told us we were looking at an American kestrel.
Slate-blue wings and head were in sharp contrast to the warm rusty back and cap. Kestrels have long pointed wings common to falcons. It is small, about the size of a mourning dove.
We were looking at a male; females lack those colorful blues. As we inspected the falcon with our binoculars, we could see the stubby blue beak and the bright yellow legs and toes. Two thick black bars stood out on the kestrel’s white face. The closer inspection allowed us to see the intricate black streaks scattered throughout the blue and rusty feathers as well as the pale underside.
The bird suddenly started bobbing its head and, a moment later, shot off the wire onto the field below. By the time I pulled the bird back into focus, its meal (a grasshopper?) was gone. Its quick flight showed off the black sub-terminal band and the white dots on its long rufous tail.
The world has several kestrels, but the American species is the only one in the Western Hemisphere. There are 17 subpopulations, and they can be found from the edge of the Arctic down to Tierra del Fuego.
Kestrels exhibit extreme variability in their coloration. Generally, they are darker hued in the high latitudes (both north and south) and paler as they approach the equator.
American kestrels can be found in every U.S. state except Hawaii. They are permanent residents in most of the lower 48, although they are rare along the Texas and Louisiana coasts.
Kestrels reuse old woodpecker holes or other natural openings for their nests.
The female will lay four to five eggs and does most of the incubating, although the male takes brief turns sitting on the clutch. It takes about a month for the eggs to hatch and another month before the chicks leave the nest. The male provides most of the food for both his mate and the nestlings. As soon as they are able, fledglings and females leave the nest area. Males typically follow about a week later.
American kestrels are birds of open landscapes. They are found above fields, meadows, parks and suburban yards. Any place that has low ground cover and a place to perch while hunting will do.
Kestrels favor open landscapes because that’s where their food is. In addition to grasshoppers and crickets, kestrels eat cicadas, spiders, butterflies and moths. They are expert hunters, frequently preying on voles, mice, shrews, lizards and frogs. And, kestrels hunt other birds.
This falcon was formerly called the sparrow hawk, a fact still reflected in its Latin name — Falco sparverius.
As we had witnessed, kestrels like to hunt from perches overlooking open lands. You can find them on power lines, telephone poles, fence posts or on low border trees.
Sometimes, kestrels hunt on the wing. Like the northern harrier, the kestrel flies low and into the wind. When it spots prey, the falcon will hover for a moment before plunging down to grab its food with its talons. The bird uses its specialized beak to sever its victim’s spinal column with a single lethal bite to the back of the neck.
Monoculture, especially on the massive farms of the Midwest, leads to thousands of acres without a single tree or fence post. And, the frequent use of pesticides robs these birds of their food sources. The population of the American kestrel was cut in half between 1966 and 2015. Loss of suitable nesting habitat and the alarming decline in insects have combined in an especially challenging way.
Landmark research into the devastating role of pesticides on raptors was conducted right where we were watching the kestrel. The Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge near Laurel, MD, was a pioneer in the study of the effects of pesticides on birds and bugs.
The refuge’s kestrel research was the first to show the shell-thinning effects of DDT in birds. This research led to the ban on DDT and many other harmful chemicals.
We have lost 3 billion birds over the last 50 years. Insect mortality (and even extinction) is many times greater than avian losses.
Our ecosystems are under siege. Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring more than 50 years ago to warn of a future without birdsong or insect sounds. With the recovery of the bald eagle, many of us believed we were making progress. Unfortunately, her warning is closer to reality now than ever before.
The way ahead will need to be marked by unprecedented global cooperation. Addressing climate change means we will need to adopt the kestrel’s perspective. This little falcon is certainly an American bird, but one of North, Central and South America, not just the U.S. of A. Ranging across two continents and more than 25 nations, the American kestrel effortlessly ignores political borders. It’s a perspective we would be smart to adopt.