American Kestrels are Back for the Winter Months
by Ro Wauer
The last couple cold fronts, as mild as they were, have brought a number of northern birds back into South Texas. One of the most attractive and one of my very favorites is the little falcon, the American kestrel. Anyone driving along the highways in winter can find some of these little raptors perched on utility lines, on various snags and poles, or hovering over open areas searching for prey.
Once known as "sparrow hawk," due to its habit of taking sparrows, its proper name is now American kestrel. It also has been called "killy-killy," after its distinct killy-killy call; "windhover," because of its habit of hovering in the wind; "rusty-crowned falcon," due to its reddish cap; and "gavilan chitero" in Spanish-speaking countries.
The kestrel is not a true hawk, such as the much larger, broad-winged buteos - red-tailed, Swainson's, and white-tailed hawks - but it is a true falcon of the genus Falco, closely related to peregrine, prairie, and Aplomado falcons. Each possesses long pointed wings bent back at the wrist and can reach great flight speeds when necessary. A coursing falcon flies fast and direct, usually without interruption. And all four of the above falcons also possess the typical falcon face pattern of a long, black wedge (sideburns) against otherwise whitish cheeks.
Although the larger falcons prey on species such as ducks and shorebirds, kestrels take much smaller prey, including small rodents, birds, snakes, bats, frogs, lizards, and a variety of insects. Crickets and grasshoppers are favorite food items. In fact, in some parts of their range, they are known as "grasshopper hawks," due to their preference for these insects. Kestrel prey is usually located from a perch or by hovering in midair. Prey capture is undertaken by a swift, direct pounce from above, with talons extended. Usually the prey is taken to a perch to eat immediately, but kestrels also are known to store extra food in a protected niche for several days.
Many folks consider the American kestrel the most appealing of all our raptors. Perhaps this is because of their small size, but it also may relate to their ability to adapt to a variety of environments. They seem to do very well in urban settings, so long as they can find food in a backyard or field. They may even nest in tree cavities close to our homes, usually where there is an abundance of local prey, such as house sparrows. But in the wild, they utilize a variety of nesting sites, ranging from tree cavities or old crow or jay nests, such as those in the Texas Pineywoods, or on isolated cliffs in the Chisos and Guadalupe mountains of West Texas.
Like most raptors, females are somewhat larger than the males, 10 to 12 inches in length and with a wingspan of 22 to 25 inches. The males possess the brightest plumage. One of the most colorful of all raptors, they sport a rufous red back and tail, with a black subterminal band and white tip, bluish wings, pale reddish underparts, and white, black, bluish, and reddish head. They also possess a pair of black eye-spots of their nape, thought to be protective coloration; the watching "eyes" may confuse some predators. Females are similar but not so brightly colored and lack the blue-gray-colored wings.
American kestrels occur throughout the Americas, from Alaska south to Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of South America, and from California east to the West Indies. Although kestrels are rarely found in South Texas during the breeding season, they are abundant in winter when many individuals congregate here from throughout their breeding grounds. They are our avian equivalent of human "snow-birds."
Wherever they have come from, they are most welcome. American kestrels are a favorite visitor to many of us who enjoy birds and the wonderful avian diversity that is available in South Texas.
Ro Wauer's latest book is "The American Kestrel, Falcon of Many Names." Published by Johnson Books, this 102-page, soft-cover book includes numerous color photos; it sells for $15.00.