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SCVNews.com | Opinion/Commentary: A Wee Bird of Prey | 07-18-2013
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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Jul 18, 2013

evelynevandersande_mugIt seems we have always had an American kestrel at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center, because Wee Bit was with us for so many years.

He had broken a wing and could not be released back into the wild, but his life was pleasant enough at Placerita. He did not have to hunt for his food, so that particular stress was eliminated; he was handled on a regular basis, so he was not bored; and he had a healthy appetite. He was gentle, but you could not be rough with him; otherwise he would let you know with a loud chirping complaint.

In the wild, the life span of an American kestrel is only five years, but in captivity, they can live 14 to 17 years.  We lost track of the exact number of years Wee Bit was with us, but it must have been closer to 17 years.

Wee Bit

Wee Bit

When he passed away, we found another American kestrel that could not be released into the wild. So the show goes on with Tidbit.

The public is always interested by this bird. First of all, it is gorgeous, with striking markings, and it is small enough that you can approach it without being afraid that it will pierce your eye or slash your hand.

A while ago, I was standing next to a kestrel with a small group of school children. I asked them what came to mind when they looked at the bird. “It is small” … “It has a beak like a hook” … “It looks like a football player” … What? This answer took me by surprise. I asked for an explanation.

“You know how football players make black stripes on their faces? This bird has the same.”

“You are totally right,” I said, “and I am not sure if it is for the same reason. Football players make those stripes on their faces so that the reflection of the sun does not bother them; they can’t play the game with sunglasses on. They would get broken. Maybe this bird has those stripes to help him see better when it is very sunny. I really don’t know.”

With little children, you learn as a docent to say, “I really don’t know,” because there are many questions for which you don’t know the answers. It’s a good lesson for them to learn that grownups do not know it all.

evelyne_kestrel4Sometimes we say, “But we can look up the answer when we go back to the center” when we know of a book where we can find more information.

But children have open, fresh minds, and sometimes there is no answer to questions like, “Why are ants black?”

Yes, the American kestrel is a small bird about the size of a turtle dove. Yes, its beak is like a hook because it is a bird of prey. They eat mostly grasshoppers, lizards, mice and small birds. Most of the time, they will catch their prey on the ground, but they can also catch small birds in the air. They grab them with their sharp talons and give a quick blow of death with a killing bite to the back of the head.

Small prey can be quickly eaten on the ground, but larger prey are brought to a perch where the kestrel can eat quietly without being in a vulnerable position. Being on the ground is a dangerous place to be for any length of time. Sometimes they cache or hide food for the next day, but this behavior tends to happen more in the fall and the winter when food is more difficult to find.

evelyne_kestrel1How do they hunt? Basically they are “sit-and-wait” hunters. They stand on a high perch that gives them good visibility of the area. That is an important part of a good habitat for American kestrels, and they survive well in urban areas because they can use telephone poles or tall buildings to hunt for prey. It seems to be working, as the American kestrel is the most abundant falcon in North America.

Hovering before pouncing on the prey is always exciting to see. The bird stays in one spot in the air, fluttering its wings quickly, with rapid wing beats, and then drops like a stone on the prey.

Football-player makeup? I do not have an explanation for the two narrow, vertical black stripes on each side of the head. Other falcons have only one stripe. On the other hand, there is a theory for the two black spots (ocelli) that can be seen on each side of the white or orange-ish nape. They act as “false eyes” and help protect the bird. The attacker might hit at the wrong place, thinking it hit the eye, but the kestrel would not be gravely injured. Butterflies often have a strong marking in an eye shape on their wings so the attacker goes to the wrong place, giving them a chance to escape.

I won’t give you a full description of all the kestrel does, but they have two calls, and they are very familiar at the Nature Center. Just listening to those calls in the building, we know what is going on: There is a rapid “Klee, Klee, Klee” when the kestrel is upset or excited, and we know to have a look to make sure all is OK and that the bird is not stressed out. There is also a softer chatter, a pleasantly content sound we often hear at feeding time. It can also be heard at copulation time or during the feeding of nestlings, which does not happen inside our building.

evelyne_kestrel2Pair bonds are strong, often permanent. Kestrels have an elaborate courtship, and they are cavity nesters: They use natural cavities in trees – holes made by woodpeckers, or the abandoned nests of hawks, marlins or crows. They have made nests on cliff ledges and building tops, and they will also use nesting boxes.

They lay four to five eggs. The male does most of the hunting to feed mother and babies, while the female takes care of most of the incubation duties. But the male does incubate 15 percent to 20 percent of the time.

When the babies are born, they cannot even sit up for five days. But they grow fast, reaching adult weight when they are just 16 days old. They are able to leave the nest 28 to 31 days after birth, but at that time, they are fledglings and still need their parents to feed them for two to three weeks until they are able to hunt by themselves.

They are beautiful birds – not easy to observe casually in your back yard because they often perch high – but be assured they are around, checking the area for their next meal.

They are also known as the sparrow hawk because of their small size. An interesting little bird.

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.

 

evelyne_kestrel3

 

 

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