Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

American Kestrel

Dear Bird Folks,

Last week you wrote about the Wood Duck being our most colorful bird. I disagree and contend that the American Kestrel is more beautiful. Did you forget about them? Also, has something happened to the kestrels? I haven’t seen many lately.

– Kyle, Sandwich, MA


No, I didn’t, Kyle,

Of course, I didn’t forget about Kestrels. Kestrels are beautiful birds, but beautiful and colorful aren’t really the same thing. Skittles are colorful, but there’s nothing beautiful about them (except for the flavor). I certainly appreciate the kestrel’s beauty, but the color assortment of the Wood Duck is off the charts, and that’s all I’m saying on the subject. When it comes to birds, I don’t like suggesting that one bird is somehow better or more important than another. It’s like naming a favorite child. (Oh’, sure, we all have a favorite; we just can’t say it out loud.)

For the most part, birds of prey are dullards in the plumage department. The majority of them are basically all brown, with the occasional bits of white or rust tossed in. The American Kestrel, however, is anything but dull. The male sports a rufous back and tail, a peachy chest, and steel blue wings and head. They also have distinctive facial “sideburns,” making them look like little Elvis impersonators, but in much better shape.

When I first started birding, kestrels were called “sparrow hawks,” but it turns out they aren’t hawks at all. They are, in fact, North America’s smallest falcons. Most folks think of falcons as fast-flying predators, chasing down other birds with supersonic speed. That’s not how kestrels do it. Their hunting style is a lot less dramatic. They tend to sit on posts or utility wires and wait for food to come to them. They’ll also hover in place, like hummingbirds, while they search for food from the air. If we can get back to that sparrow hawk name for minute, it needs to be pointed out that in addition to not being hawks, kestrels don’t eat many sparrows either. That’s another misnomer. (The name sparrow hawk is the avian version of Grape-Nuts, which contains neither grapes nor nuts. And don’t get me started on Buffalo wings.) A kestrel’s main diet consists of crickets and grasshoppers. It will also grab a fair number of mice and voles, but only a small percentage of their diet is birds of any kind. Although I do have a story about a kestrel and a starling. I’ll tell you that later if there’s room (and if I remember).

Some folks might not be familiar with kestrels, but not too many years ago they were a common sight around Cape Cod. Nearly every day I would see them as I hiked along the power lines. A pair even nested in an old tree just up the street from our shop, right on busy Rt. 6A. But sadly, those days are over. Kestrels have all but disappeared from the Cape and their population is also plummeting throughout North America. Why? Nobody knows. Last week I wrote about the problems Wood Ducks previously faced with over-hunting, DDT and loss of nesting trees. Once those issues were addressed, the duck population rebounded. But right now officials are at a loss to explain why kestrels are disappearing. That’s not good.

Like Wood Ducks, kestrels nest in tree cavities. In areas where natural cavities are scarce, folks have put up special nest boxes. Sometimes the kestrels use them, but other times they don’t. Food scarcity is another consideration, but kestrels aren’t picky eaters. If they can’t find crickets, they’ll switch to mice and even lizards in some locations. Herbicides and insecticides could also be the problem, but nothing has been proven. The explanation that makes the most sense to me has to do with Cooper’s Hawks. Coops are speedy hawks that are notorious for snagging backyard birds (including a Mourning Dove in my yard ten minutes ago). They will also eat kestrels. Over the last few decades our Cooper’s Hawk population has exploded, while the kestrels have basically vanished. You do the math.

Hey, look! There’s room (and I remembered), so here’s my starling story. It was the winter of 1986, back when we still had kestrels around here and winters still meant lots of snow. I was driving down Rt.6 in Eastham when I came upon a kestrel floundering in the middle of the busy highway. In a “don’t try this at home moment” I hit the brakes, put on my flashers and jumped out of the car. My plan was to grab the injured kestrel and take it for treatment, but when the little falcon saw me it flew up into a tree and was perfectly fine. However, there was another bird in the road that wasn’t so fine: a dead starling. The kestrel had caught the starling, but wasn’t strong enough to fly away with it. (Kestrels and starlings weigh about the same.) As I picked up the dead bird, the kestrel scolded me, acting as if I was going to eat it myself. (I guess it didn’t realize I was a vegetarian.) I tossed the starling on top of a snowbank and drove off. A few hours later, I passed the same spot again and noticed both birds were gone, except for a few starling feathers in the snow. You’re welcome, Mr. Kestrel.

You are right about kestrels being beautiful birds, Kyle. I wish they were still around here. Even though their numbers are declining, they can still be found in many locations, including certain areas of Vermont, many southern states and, of course, Vegas, where they make nightly appearances as little Elvis impersonators. I hear they’re really good, too.