Saturday, April 20, 2013

Tiny But Fierce

Of all birds, I love raptors best, and of all raptors, I have a special admiration and affection for falcons. Of course, the Peregrine is my talisman, but the colorful and charismatic American Kestrel has a special place in my heart. The Kestrels are just now returning to northern climates after their winter sojourn to regions to our south, all the way to the southernmost reaches of South America.

The American Kestrel, the smallest falcon in North America, is widespread but is becoming increasingly rare as open grassland — the type of habitat it needs for survival — becomes developed and paved over. Kestrels nest in cavities such as dead trees or abandoned holes of the larger woodpeckers, and as property owners continue to remove “ugly” dead and dying trees, the Kestrels have fewer places to nest. Some property owners put up nesting boxes designed for Kestrels’ use, and this has helped. Farmers should be glad to have Kestrels around; they prey on mice, grasshoppers, and other small creatures that can be harmful to crops.

These terrible photos, taken quickly on my cell phone from the car window, don’t convey the startlingly brilliant colors of the American Kestrel. Both male and female have rich russet tail and back, and the male has slaty-blue wings. The female has a lovely streaky breast, while the make sports black spots on his buffy breast. Check for online images to see for yourself.

These photos don’t do justice to the Kestrel’s elegant form, either: They have a long tail and long, pointed, sickle-shaped wings, better shown in the second photo above. (In fact, the word “falcon” is derived from falx, the Latin word for “sickle.”) To see one of these little falcons floating on a midsummer breeze above a grassy field is just lovely.

All across North America, these little falcons adorn fields and meadows. Look for them as you drive through the countryside; you can see them perched on a wire, such as in these photos, or slicing swiftly through the air on their long, sickle-shaped wings. If you’re lucky, you might spot one of these little falcons hovering over a field, holding itself motionless while it searches for prey on the ground. If you can, stop and watch for a few minutes; you might see the little falcon dive down to snatch a grasshopper, mouse, or little snake, then fly back up to its perch for a quick lunch.

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