Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Falco sparverius

If the American Kestrel’s size matched its attitude I think a lot of us would live in fear. Of course this would be my favorite raptor and the bird that started it all for me.

I was in seventh grade on a field trip to Cornell University. My interest in birds was just beginning and this trip completely reeled me in. The university had a room where all sorts of live raptors were on display with student handlers. One bird caught my eye immediately. It looked like a miniature Peregrine Falcon to me at the time. The girl handling the bird told me it was an American Kestrel. I was in love after that moment. I remember that night going online and looking up more facts about kestrels. But being only a 13 year old at the time, I had limited resources and other distractions as teenagers usually do. Birding ended up on the back burner for the next few years. I wouldn’t encounter a kestrel again until I was in college.

So what is an American Kestrel exactly?   Let me enlighten you  :) 

The American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) is North America’s smallest falcon. They can be found throughout the country and possibly in your backyard. Kestrels like open habitat with perches for hunting. You can find them easily perched on telephone wires and utility poles along meadows and farm fields.

Kestrels hunt song birds and small mammals such as mice and voles. They also hunt insects such as june bugs and big juicy grasshoppers. They will hunt from perches and hover hunt which is when they actually hover in flight while looking for food.

What is really unique about these little guys is that they are cavity nesters. They raise their young in cavities found in trees, snags, etc. Kestrels usually raise between 1 to 5 chicks during the breeding season (Although I have seen some very dedicated parents raise 7!!!).

In New York, the kestrel population has decreased by 14% according to USGS and the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). Part of this decline is due to a lack of nesting cavities. Fortunately, nest boxes have been designed and built for kestrels where natural cavities may be lacking. You can even build your own nest box! If you have some open habitat and want a better chance to see these awesome birds all you have to do is look up a design online and build a nest box. I recommend the Hawk Mountain design, which can be found here:


For more basic info on this species check this out:


Kestrel Nest Box - and yes that is a dead hamster in my pocket

Back to where it started....

During my junior year in college I was lucky enough to take a class on Adirondack Raptors where I met the professor, Mark Manske. The class and Mark's obsessive passion for raptors (warning! There is no cure once you trap and band that first hawk or falcon!) reignited my own love of raptors and took me under his wing (yes, pun intended). He happened to have an American Kestrel nest box program in the summer where he would check nest boxes and band the chicks.  I had been hooked on banding raptors since that fall when Mark invited me out with some of my friends and fellow students to trap migrant raptors. So naturally my good friend/partner in crime (Lisa Schofield) and I came up with a capstone project for the kestrel nest boxes in which Mark would become our mentor.

Capstone: also referred to as crapstone by students at PSC, a research project created by a student or group of students with help from a mentor to be completed before graduation (Basically it was a grad school prep mini-thesis)

I spent the next year sleeping, breathing, and living kestrels. It was awesome! The summer before my senior year was when all the field work was conducted. Lisa and I ended up renting an apartment for the summer near our study site. We quickly learned what a waste it was since we were only there to sleep. Mark, Lisa, and I trapped and banded adults as well as chicks almost every day. The schedule was quite busy when we also would help out another professor mist netting passerines (song birds). There were days we were up from 3 am to 10 or 11pm. I honestly don’t know how we kept that schedule. Thankfully, Mark, who was lovingly called Pappy, made sure we ate and took naps.  At times I remember coming to the point where you had to decide if showering or eating was more important than sleep. Usually sleep won.

Male American Kestrel

Female American Kestrel

At one point in the summer my mom and sister paid us a visit for a few days. The first day my mom was disgusted with the messy apartment and my lack of showering (That’s what ball caps are for, the birds don’t care what you look like!). After two days in the field, she understood and was more accepting. 

A lot of work and dedication goes into trapping kestrels and checking nest boxes. All our traps were hand made in which I pricked and noosed my fingers multple times. We also would have to run with a pole and ladder to the nest box to try and trap an adult if it was inside. I think Lisa and Mark enjoyed this part a bit too much. Apparently I run funny. 

Once we had an adult or chicks in hand we would record their measurements and band them with a federal band on their right leg. Sometimes this was not an easy task. I learned quickly that kestrels have quite the attitude and love to bite around your cuticles. I remember having a bloody thumb from a persistent female while my mentor laughed as we banded her. Although I had the last laugh when she got the best of him afterwards. 

Weighing Female Kestrel (yes, those are 2 soup cans taped together)

Each federal band placed on a bird is numbered to identify individuals and is reported to a national database called the Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL). If the bird is found or recaptured and reported to the BBL we can gain more information on the species such as dispersal, migration, and even development.

Important! If you ever spot a bird with a band and can read the numbers/letters or even find a dead banded bird, REPORT IT! It's simple, just go to this website and follow the steps : http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/

By reporting this you are contributing to science and you can even learn about the bird you found. One of the kestrels from the nest boxes I helped with in New York was found all the way down in Houma, Louisiana!

Banded Red-tailed Hawk
During that summer we caught and banded 42 adults and checked 130 nest boxes. In the following years I have returned to help Mark in the summer with his kestrels when I could. I hope to continue helping again this summer.

Basket of Kestrel Chicks :)