Yesterday I saw a bird flying across the front field, but it was too far away to make an ID. A few minutes later, the bird landed on top of an electric utility pole a hundred yards or so away. I pulled out the binoculars and saw that it was a male American Kestrel, a first sighting of this species on our farm.
You’ll have to pardon the lousy picture – I don’t have adequate zoom on my camera to get a clear picture. His feathers are fluffed out to buffer him from the wind and cold. I don’t know if the hunt was successful, but he was still there 30 minutes later.
The American kestrel, often called the sparrow hawk, is the smallest and most colorful falcon in North America. They are commonly seen perched on telephone wires where they are frequently mistaken for mourning doves. With long, pointed wings, members of the falcon family are the fastest flying birds. Streamlined birds with a nimble, buoyant flight, kestrels are capable of hovering on rapidly beating wings when they spot prey on the ground. There are seven subspecies of kestrels, only one of which, Falco sparverius, is found in Virginia. The kestrel population grew as the state’s forests were cleared for agricultural uses.
But in recent years, migration counts reveal significant decreases in the falcon’s populations in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. Autumn migration “hawkwatch” counts in Cape May, New Jersey are down more than 40 percent below the 30-year site average for kestrels; similarly, counts at Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania are down 30 percent.
In the last few decades, open habitats used by kestrels for hunting have been developed or returned to forest, resulting in less available habitat, not only for the kestrel, but also for other “open country” birds such as the eastern towhee, another species on the decline in Virginia. As habitat is lost, so are the dead trees that provide nesting cavities for “secondary cavity-dwellers” like kestrels and many other birds that use abandoned woodpecker nesting holes. Increased predation by the larger Cooper’s hawk, a chief predator and a species whose populations are rising, is also thought to be a factor.
I was happy to see this little falcon because having them around is a positive environmental barometer. A top-of-the-food-chain predator, the kestrel’s presence indicates that the insects, amphibians, and small birds that it needs are plentiful and pesticide use probably low. When I wrote an article on the decline of the American Kestrel for Virginia Wildlife a couple of years ago, my husband built a kestrel nesting box. We have procrastinated in putting it up, but you can bet this spring, that box is going up!