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1888 - Acton post office established; Richard E. Nickel, postmaster [story]
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Sarah Brewer Thompson
| Thursday, Jan 30, 2014

sarahbrewerthompson_mugThe American kestrel (Falco sparverius) is a fascinating little titan.

Also known as sparrow hawks, they are the smallest raptor, or bird of prey, in North America, usually smaller than a pigeon. They are often confused for smaller bird species and can be hard to distinguish, since they move quickly and do not normally come close to humans.

Kestrels are commonly found in the Vasquez Rocks area, perching in high trees or on telephone lines, on the lookout for small mammals, reptiles or insects, which make up the majority of their diet. They are often recognized by their distinctive hunting behavior, hovering in the air with a fluttering motion, then folding their wings and diving quickly toward their prey below.

Like many raptors, they exhibit sexual dimorphism, meaning varying appearances between males and females, although the overall appearance between sexes is similar. Both sexes exhibit a yellow cere (the area that connects the beak to the face), yellow feet, and a black-and-white face and tail.

Photos by the writer except as noted.

Photos by the writer except as noted.

Males have a striking bluish-gray coloring on the tops of the wings and a rusty red-orange color along their backs. The males’ tail is rusty red-orange with a black band near the end and a white tip, and it appears the same from above as it does from below.

Females are a more muted brown color with dark speckling or banding on the entire body and tail. The underbody is typically lighter than the back. As with most raptors, females can be 30 percent larger than the males in order to protect their young more effectively.

Given their small size, kestrels can fall prey to larger birds, but they, too, have been known to prey on birds smaller than themselves, such as sparrows.

Because they can be hard to spot, their call is one of the best ways to know a kestrel is around. Thecall is a distinctive, high-pitched sound that resembles a repetition of the sound “killy” or “tilly.” Adults are typically 8 to 12 inches in length, weigh around 3.5 to 4.3 ounces, and have a wingspan of 20 to 24 inches.

Photo by Denny Truger

Photo by Denny Truger

Keep an eye out for this mighty little bird, and if you would like to see one up close, come see Mr. Peepers, a rehabilitated kestrel that lives at Vasquez Rocks.

Peepers’ story is a sad one: It took him several years before he could catch any luck. A family had (illegally) tried to keep Peepers as a pet, feeding him a diet of raw hamburger meat. Lacking the proper nutrition he would have gotten by consuming other parts of smaller animals, he grew ill. His cere and feet had become gray, not the normal, vibrant orange-yellow that indicates health. He was essentially dying slowly. Luckily, he was surrendered to the county where, like the other birds at Vasquez, he was rehabbed to full health.

Unfortunately, when he was being handled outside in a tree-covered area, a Cooper’s hawk (one of the fiercer birds of prey in the area) swooped down and tried to get Peepers. In defending himself, Peepers seriously injured one of his eyes, eventually losing it. The eye are eventually healed itself so it is now an empty socket, making him non-releasable, since he would be at constant risk of being easy prey or injuring himself.

Instances such as this show no matter how careful we may be, nature usually has control over the situation, and we need to respect and work with it.

Mr. Peepers is now healthy and content, serving as a kestrel ambassador. He is one of the most popular animals at the park that people of all ages love to see, especially the smaller kids, because they never knew a falcon could be so “teeny tiny,” as I have heard a few say.

As always, we wish he could be flying free, soaring the local skies in search of prey, but we are really just glad he is alive and healthy. He has quite the little personality, and we adore our brave little man, as do thousands of park patrons every year.

 

Sarah Brewer Thompson was born and raised in Agua Dulce, where she learned to love and appreciate nature and history. She is a master’s student at California State University, Northridge, and a docent at Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park. Her areas of interest are local history, archaeology and animal studies.

 

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