I was quite amazed at their size when the three birds were taken out of their nest and placed in a 5-gallon pail.
Quarry Hill naturalist and Master Falconer Kirk Payne was at the top of the stepladder carefully removing each of the birds to bring down and band, with some of us waiting in anticipation.
The nest the birds came out of was inside a box put out specifically to attract American kestrels. About 2 feet high, and a foot on each side, with a hole in the front, these boxes have been of the same design for many decades. I recall at least 30 years ago seeing many of them put on roadway signs along Interstate 35 in Iowa, and we also began putting them out around Quarry Hill and other locations many years ago.
Lying on their backs in the bucket on top of a towel, Kirk quickly noted the birds were all females, later pointing out the brownish feathers which would have been more blue in males. He estimated their age around 16 days and thought they would be leaving the nest in about 10 days. We didn’t notice either of the parents in the area for the half hour we worked on processing the young.
For many years, I have spoken of this member of the falcon family as my favorite bird, although over the past 20 years the small saw-whet owls I net and band each fall may have taken over that designation.
I have banded thousands of birds over the years, but never young kestrels, so it was a new experience for me. Also excited to be taking part were three naturalists from Oxbow Park and my daughter’s family.
My amazement increased over the size of these 2- to 3-week old kestrels when Kirk carefully weighed each, with the three weights ranging from 120 to 142 grams, roughly a quarter to third of a pound. I wondered if the scale he was using was faulty, as these numbers were comparable to the largest of the saw-whet owls I band each year, and these young birds didn’t seem to be near those in size. After Kirk later verified the scale was accurate, I suspected my bewilderment was probably due to the fact these young birds still had very few feathers to give them a much bulkier look and feel.
The American kestrel is the smallest and most common member of the falcon family in North America. It has often been been called sparrow hawk, possibly because sparrows, along with other small birds, as well as lizards, small rodents, and even grasshoppers are part of their diet. Although possibly more closely related to larger falcons, like the noted peregrines, it has been lumped with other similar-sized kestrels found worldwide.
Kestrels are what I consider one of the best-looking birds around that are rarely noticed by most people. While they don’t come to feeders, they are quite prevalent on power lines, where they survey the landscape below for moving prey. Often they can be seen hovering in the air, wings flapping in place, while they prepare to swoop down on their prey. When seen in pairs on the wires, especially during early spring, it is usually easy to tell males from the larger females. Up close the striking blue coloration of some of the males' feathers set them apart from the more brownish females.
Kirk noted that while kestrels have been used by falconers, probably for centuries, some states, including Minnesota, have banned their use. He suspects the ban is due to two factors, one being that their numbers are declining across most of their range, undoubtedly due to habitat loss.
The second reason is the difficulty falconers have in maintaining the birds' weight. In falconry, bird weights must be carefully monitored, keeping them hungry so they will hunt, but not starving them, something difficult to do with such a small bird.
If you want to familiarize yourself with what a kestrel looks like, one of Kirk’s birds previously used for falconry, a longevity-record 18-year-old bird named Horace, is now on display at Quarry Hill.
And, once you start looking more closely at birds on utility lines along country roads, you will soon pick out some kestrels and get more comfortable identifying them.