It’s summer time, but the livin’ ain’t easy if you’re a grasshopper, a snake, a small rodent, or a fledgling bird. The Kestrel kids have left the nest.
One morning last week at the lakeshore park that I frequent I counted seven American Kestrels—probably five siblings and their parents. They chased each other over the open ground, swooping down occasionally to snatch something from the grass, then fighting playfully over the prey. They were also practicing their hovering. At one point there were five birds fluttering fifty feet above the field. Facing into the wind, they were lined up along the lakeshore like so many dirigibles along the eastern seaboard during World War II. But these dirigibles could dive, and every diving Kestrel came up with something in its talons.
I have always been fascinated by this tiny falcon. As a child, our vacations were often cross-country road trips, and to endure the boredom of the long drive, I'd watch the telephone wires and try to spot American Kestrels. Usually it was Mourning Doves or blackbirds that I'd see, but every once in a while there would be a colorful Kestrel, bobbing its tail, searching the ground intently for its dinner. If I was lucky, I'd see one take off and hover over the grass in the median, before making a quick dive to the ground. As a grade-school boy, I thought that was the coolest thing to watch. Our car always passed too quickly for me to see whether its hunt was successful, but I imagined it coming up with a grasshopper, or maybe a field mouse in its talons. At least that's what National Geographic told me Kestrels ate.
The American Kestrel is about the size of a Mourning Dove, but five times more colorful. It's as if the paintbrushes of evolutionary coloration skipped right over the plain Mourning Dove and splashed all their paint on the Kestrel instead, especially the male Kestrel. A rich combination of orange, white, black and steel blue.
As you drive the expressway across open land, the large, soaring Turkey Vultures or the bulky Red-tailed Hawks will definitely catch your eye. But if you spot what looks like a tiny drone hovering fifty feet over the field, then disappearing in a flash into the grass, you'll know that's an American Kestrel. Try to slow down enough to savor the drama, and maybe even make out what the nimble falcon comes up with in its talons.
Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.