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Kestrel displays great spirit, speed and swiftness

A few Aprils ago while standing in my backyard looking across the pond, I heard the high-pitched "ki-ki-ki" calls of a kestrel.

Knowing that such calls -- especially during the springtime before leaf-out -- are frequently produced by a male kestrel in pursuit of a female, I began searching the treetops for a glimpse.

I soon discovered the courting couple flying above the trees -- the male above his companion, often circling around her, both behaving playfully with one another. Soon, the female landed abruptly onto a high branch of a nearby oak tree. I delighted in the male's antics as he swooped at her, sometimes, at least appearing to brush against her with his wings.

A short time later, I began to wonder if the pair of kestrels were using one of my wood duck nest boxes, as it seemed I observed them more often than not in the vicinity of the tree on which the box was mounted. The cries increased in frequency and duration and it became obvious the birds had claimed the box as their nesting cavity.

Courtship and mating was accompanied with a great amount of boisterous vocalizations by both birds. And later, as the female sat on her clutch of four eggs inside the nest box, the male would become especially agitated at either my approach near to the tree the box was affixed to or the sight of other raptors and birds nearby.

I sometimes was lucky enough to witness the male kestrel make chase and fine sport of escorting other birds of prey away from the nesting area. It was thrilling to watch the little warrior dive-bomb such birds as northern harriers, great blue herons and crows. The male's relentless cries and persistent dives hastened avian trespassers' departure.

To this day, some people still call this attractive little raptor "sparrow hawk." And for many years, I did as well. For sure, to the untrained eye the tiny bird of prey appears to be every bit a hawk that shares traits common to the group. However, the pint-sized raptor is not a hawk at all. In fact, the sparrow hawk is a falcon: the American kestrel.

This classy little falcon is as easy to misidentify, I think, as it is to identify. Perched upon a power line, a kestrel resembles a dove or similar-sized bird from a distance. But on the wing, the American kestrel assumes the beauty and grace that can only be ascribed to falcons. Narrow and pointed wings power the fearless falcon through the air with such commanding speed that few birds can outdistance or outmaneuver it.

A familiar kestrel habit will often give human admirers a positive clue to its identity. Kestrels typically hunt by hovering in near motionlessness, save for their fluttering wings, above grassy fields, ditches or other likely rodent haunts. The falcon's longish tail will be fanned out, the body angled slightly upward, and its head tilted downward with eyes intensely searching for the movements of voles, mice or shrews on rodent runways beneath tall vegetation.

Aided by headwinds, this mode of flight will be maintained indefinitely, occasionally dipping unexpectedly a few feet lower in altitude, only to regain the sedentary airborne posture if its intended prey had yet to be sighted or secured.

A complete free-fall to the ground below will occur when a hapless rodent, sometimes a grasshopper, sometimes a frog, is sighted and fails to escape the falcon's quick strike. Even small birds are hunted by this formidable falcon.

American kestrels are beautifully colored falcons; no other bird of prey in North America is so richly painted. The male kestrel sports a rusty backside and tail, slate blue adorns his crown and wings, and a white terminal band graces the tips of his tail feathers. As well, white cheek patches are accented by two black "whisker" markings on each side of his head.

The little "sparrow hawk" is fairly comfortable nesting in urban settings and backyards. The kestrels' acceptance of artificial nesting boxes, abandoned woodpecker holes and the crevices of buildings as nesting sites speaks of its extraordinary adaptability and tolerance of human presence and activity.

Couple this with the species' frequent occurrence along roadways as they hunt for prey, often perched on overhead wires of power lines or on top of fence posts, and kestrels are probably the most commonly observed countryside raptor.

It can be said of the smallest North American falcon, indeed, scarcely nine inches long, that where size is lacking, spirit, speed and swiftness are equal substitutes. The American kestrel will soon be with us again as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at