Flight of the Falcons

In my last post, I wrote about how I will be studying American Kestrels for my master’s research. I mentioned that kestrels are beautiful birds that frequent open habitats and sometimes engage in “hover hunting”. You probably came away from the post wondering if kestrels enjoy playing football because they wear eye black. Yes, they do. They have  learned how to play sports by attending human events. They use the mice they catch as the balls. After the game is over, they kabob the mice with porcupine quills and roast them over a fire. What? You didn’t think all falcons like their food raw, did you?! Kestrels are actually seen at baseball, football or soccer games, where they may hang out by posts or lights to capture insects. Mmm . . . grasshoppers and moth bites. Kestrels will sometimes store up a cache of food in a pasture, bush or tree. So in the eyes of a rodent, kestrels are serial killers. I’ll stop writing about kestrel hunting habits now because you’re probably getting hungry. How about some pictures of kestrels eating?

American kestrel holding prey in beakAmerican kestrel feeding, using talons to hold prey

American kestrel with kill

During the breeding season, American Kestrel pairs engage in various romantic activities, like ascending and diving or exchanging food presents. Sometimes a male will even take a female to a fly-in theater. Once pairs have established, they will usually stay together for the season. Kestrels will defend their territories from intruders and potential predators. That’s right, even kestrels have enemies. Larger raptors such as Cooper’s Hawks, Great Horned Owls, and Red-tailed Hawks will occasionally attack kestrels. Great Horned Owls will knock kestrels out with a FALCON PUNCH! Sorry, couldn’t resist throwing in a little super smash bros. reference.

Unlike many other birds, kestrels do not build their own nests. They are actually secondary cavity nesters, which means they rely on other birds to excavate nesting cavities for them. Kestrels often use an abandoned woodpecker holes, tree hollows, or man-made structures. Sometimes a woodpecker cavity becomes abandoned after the kestrel chases the woodpecker out! Though kestrels do not build the nests, the male will sometimes display with decorative flair in order to impress his mate by using snakeskins to line the nest. Can you imagine having children while sitting on a pile of snakes? Just kidding, I made that up. Kestrels will also use man-made nest boxes. Here’s a video of a kestrel fighting a starling for a nest box.

Once the young have hatched, the parents spend much of their time gathering food for the hungry chicks.

American kestrel chicks in nest

The parents also defend the chicks from avian predators, snakes and even fire ants. The young repay their parents care by screaming and spraying feces all over the nest box. After about a month, the juveniles are ready to fledge and leave the nest. Then more falcons take flight and the world is a better place.

My research on kestrels will focus on tail-pumping behavior. Several ideas have been proposed, but scientists are still unsure why kestrels flick their tails up and down while perched. I will be testing 4 possible hypotheses for why kestrels pump their tails. 1. Kestrels use their tails to maintain balance on a perch. 2. Kestrels use tail-pumping to communicate with other kestrels. 3. Kestrels tail-pump as a signal or sign of excitement before attacking prey. 4. Kestrels pump their tails as a signal to deter potential predators. My next post will detail why these hypotheses may or may not be true and I’ll tell you a bit about some of the kestrels I’ve started observing. May you fly like a falcon!

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