American Kestrels

Kestrel Life

Have you ever seen a small bird hovering, in one position but moving nonetheless, over grasslands? The bird is likely a kestrel trying to spy targets moving through stalks. His likely prey is a grasshopper, and he is a grass-hoverer.

When I moved from Virginia to the brown, treeless valleys of California, the birds newest to me were American kestrels. They are falcons, but although they have the falcon's long tail and pointed wings, their small size did not match my preconception of that majestic type of bird.

However, their coloring is majestic-- medieval, knightly pewter wings and a royal amber back. Their eggs are often pale pink or sometimes even cinnamon.

Befitting a knight's chivalry, the male falcon brings food to the female while in flight. It is a sort of airborne dinner date, full of the joy of moving against and with the wind.

Despite their feeling of freedom in air, kestrels prefer to hide their eggs and nests (such as they are, with very little nesting material) in covered boxes, cavities in trees dug out by other birds, or niches in walls. Ideally, these nesting sites are 12 to 80 feet above ground, where the kestrels can scan the grassy areas all around, a view that I would love.

In a description from the Life Histories of North American Birds , a birder in the 1930s suggests that when walking through grasslands devoid of trees, it is best to check all abandoned buildings for nests. In their abandonment, these buildings and ruins become refuges. The author entered a forgotten homestead and found kestrel eggs in an old stovepipe.

Carrying strongly across the emptiness, the kestrel cry is a haunting "kee kee kee."

A Quest for Kestrels

Every evening for months I have been hearing a piercing cry that seemed to bemoan the lack of day. In the fading light, I could not see the bird that was making such a fantastic noise. However, during a backyard barbecue, we discovered two kestrels flying and then resting on the chimney of a nearby house.

It is a suitable habitat for the birds, given the grasslands still surrounding our suburban encroachment and the constant noise of crickets that must be a food source.

Upon conducting further research about kestrels, I learned that the male and female tend to perch in windy spots above their nest sites. So perhaps the chimney is their windy lookout near their nest. However, I can't imagine any holes or cavities in high places that would be suitable around here. I hope that they have found a safe nest for the eggs, if there are any.

About a mile away, I discovered a nest box installed by our city in an open grassland area near a creek. We even see coyotes in this small creek valley. I wonder if the nest box is an invitation to kestrels. I am currently trying to find out, in my quest to know more.


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