I think it was the coloration of the male that made me fall in love with this little falcon. The head and wings are a bluish gray, the back and breast are a contrasting buffy orange, spotted with black, and the head has distinctive markings of black on white giving the appearance of sideburns and a mustache. He is a handsome fellow. The female, as with so many bird species, is not so bold instead sporting mostly tan feathers marked with black. The American Kestrel is about the same size as a mourning dove.
Whether you knew it at the time or not, you have probably seen them perched on telephone wires along roadsides as you passed an open field with short plants and few trees, which is an ideal place for them to hunt during daylight hours. The biggest part of the American kestrel’s diet is insects and other invertebrates. They will also eat small rodents, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
Kestrels are cavity nesters; they lay their eggs and incubate and rear their babies in holes in trees or other crevices. Because natural cavities are not always available, kestrels readily take to manmade nest boxes. If you have the right habitat a large open field you can enjoy learning more about the American Kestrel by putting up and monitoring a nest box. Be forewarned: monitoring kestrels requires a little effort – and a ladder, but the rewards make it all worthwhile.
One day in 2011, I had the opportunity to tag along with ornithologist Emily Thomas on a nest box check. She had been monitoring several boxes through the season, and she knew the babies were old enough to be fitted with leg bands for research purposes.
Some of the boxes were located on poles right next to the road and were easily accessible. One, however, was out in the middle of a field – a wet field with very tall grass.
We trudged out through the tall grass, and Emily retrieved two babies from the box one male, and one female. How did we know? The boys’ feathers come in from the beginning as that lovely bluish-gray; the girls’ are brown. These babies already had feathers developed enough that we could tell the genders.
2011 was also the year that several families got involved with installing nest boxes on their property. This was part of a statewide effort, and as such, a team of videographers came out to record footage for their documentary. The expressions on the kids’ faces as they held baby kestrels that were about to be banded were priceless. That’s what it’s all about here at Audubon connecting people to nature in a hands-on way that hopefully those kids will never forget.
To learn more about kestrels and how you can help them thrive, come to Audubon on Sunday, Feb. 10, from 1:30 p.m. until 3 p.m. Don Watts, Warren County resident and longtime monitor of several American Kestrel nest boxes, will offer an informational program on kestrels, one of our smallest and perhaps most handsome birds of prey. Reservations are not required. The cost of our public programs is normally $7 per person, and $5 for Friends of the Nature Center,. However, a generous donor has stepped forward who wants you to enjoy this program for free. Your program fee has already been paid.
If you are unable to attend the program, learn more at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/american-Kestrel/.
The Audubon Center and Sanctuary is located at 1600 Riverside Road, 1 quarter mile east of Route 62 between Jamestown and Warren, Pa. The trails are open from dawn to dusk daily and the Center is open Mondays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and on Sundays from 1-4:30 p.m. For more information, call 569-2345 or visit jamestownaudubon.org. Don’t forget about Snowflake Festival on Feb. 2 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.
Jennifer Schlick is program director at Audubon.