The Smallest Falcon!

He was lying on his side in the box, pretty much flat out, when he arrived at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. A driver saw a pile of feathers in the road as he pulled to a stop sign, and at first glance, thought the bird was dead, but before pulling away, the little bird lifted his head. That moment shifted the driver’s attention from heading to work into full-on rescue mode! He placed the injured bird inside a container and called ahead to let the shelter staff know he was bringing him in. The feathered one did not look good when he arrived, and no one could possibly know by sight how extensive or severe his injuries were, especially when theorized he had been smacked by a car. After the small bird of prey, which we identified as an American Kestrel, the smallest, most common and most numerous of all falcons, rested for a bit to de-stress, a thorough examination was conducted. No blood, no broken bones or punctured air sacs were found. Eyes were dilated and he was loopy, which we attributed to a concussion, and that meant he probably would not be able to eat on his own initially while in recovery. He was placed in intensive care and later that day an attempt was made to tweezer feed him tiny pieces of chicken. To his favor, he handled that well, ate like a champ and has continued to do so since his arrival a week ago. He is on his feet, still being tweezer fed but recovering well. Eating on his own and successful flight school are the goals now. The slender American Kestrel is roughly the size and shape of a Mourning Dove, which is between the size of a robin and a crow. They usually weigh in between 3 to 5.8 ounces with females typically 10% heavier than males, are 8 to 12 inches long and have a wingspan of 20 to 24 inches. The head looks a little too large for its body, and they sport long, narrow wings and a lengthy, square-tipped tail. In flight, the wings are often bent, and the wingtips sweep back. Their coloring is warm, rusty brown spotted with black on top and an overt, solid black band near the tip of the tail is obvious for males, but females are adorned with multiple bands on their tails. Males have slate-blue wings; females, who are paler, have wings that are muted, reddish brown. Both sexes have two bold and black vertical stripes on the sides of their face sometimes called a “mustache” or a “sideburn.” Both males and females also have bold, black eyespots at the napes of their necks. Early in the pairing-up process for breeding, groups of four to six birds may congregate to choose a mate. Courting pairs of Kestrels may exchange gifts of food, and usually the male feeds the female. These delicate falcons are secondary cavity nesters, who use woodpecker-excavated or natural cavities in large trees, crevices in rocks, and nooks in man-made structures rather than build their own nests. They simple lack the ability to excavate a nesting cavity and are dependent upon that skill in other species. Nesting materials are not necessary to line the cavities they discover, either. Barren will do! The male Kestrel will house hunt, and after finding something suitable, will show it to his mate, and she will make the final decision. Kestrels compete over the limited supply of nesting cavities with other cavity-nesters, and sometimes fight off or evict Bluebirds, Northern Flickers, small squirrels and other competitors from their chosen sites. When offered, American Kestrels will use artificial nest boxes, and there is increasing public interest in participating in nest-box programs to conserve this bird. The North American Breeding Bird Survey reports that American Kestrel populations have declined 50% between 1966 and 2015. This steep drop stems from continued clearing of land and felling of standing dead trees these birds depend on for their nest sites. The American Kestrel is also losing prey sources and nesting cavities to “clean” farming practices that remove trees and brush. An additional threat is exposure to pesticides and other pollutants, which can reduce clutch sizes and hatching success. For kestrels in North America, a larger problem is that pesticides destroy the insects, spiders and other prey on which these tiny falcons also depend. American Kestrels, who are day hunters, eat mostly insects and other invertebrates, as well as small rodents and birds. Common foods include grasshoppers, cicadas, beetles, and dragonflies; scorpions and spiders; butterflies and moths; voles, mice, shrews, bats, and small songbirds. American Kestrels, also called Sparrow Hawks, include small snakes, lizards, and frogs in their diet, too. Some people have reported seeing American Kestrels take larger prey, such as squirrels and Northern Flickers. They will usually snatch their victims from the ground, although some catch a meal on the wing. They are gracefully buoyant in flight but sometimes erratic because they are small enough to get tossed around in the wind. Their flight speed tops out at 39 mph when they’re bookin’. When perched, kestrels often pump their tails and look like they are trying to keep their balance. The American Kestrel inhabits open areas covered by short ground vegetation where it hunts mostly from perches, frequently from utility wires along the roadside, but can also hunt by hovering. The Kestrel faces into the wind when it hovers, with its head fixed, while the wings alternately flap and glide while the tail constantly adjusts to movements in the breeze. The kestrel is attracted to human-modified habitats, such as pastures and parklands and often is found near areas of human activity, even heavily developed urban areas. You may see a kestrel scanning for prey from the same perch all day long or changing perches every few minutes. Studies have shown that kestrels can see ultraviolet light like other hawks and falcons. This ability enables them to easily see the urine markings and trails that small mammals, such as voles and mice, leave as they run along the ground. These trails and urine markings probably look bright yellow to a kestrel which alerts them to a potential meal. A kestrel pounces on its prey, seizing it with one or both feet just as hawks or owls do, and a Kestrel may finish off a meal right there on the ground or carry larger prey back to a perch. During breeding season, males advertise their territory by repeatedly climbing and then diving while voicing a call of klee, klee, klee. Although diminutive and may seem unassuming, American Kestrels are known to harass large hawks and eagles during migration, and even attack hawks in their territories during breeding season. So, no wonder this little falcon is not long-lived in the wild, on the average, only 5 years. Kestrels are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, but hawks, owls and eagles are probably not aware of that. The oldest banded kestrel in the wild made it to 11 years and 7 months. That one must have thought twice about getting into a scrap with a big hawk or an American Eagle. We’re hoping, once released, our little Kestrel will think twice about tangling with those tough guys, too!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All


While enjoying the activity at his bird feeder a few weeks ago, a Beaufort, NC resident witnessed a distressing bird on bird attack. Most of us are aware that some birds such as hawks eat other birds, mainly songbirds, and this appeared to be a hawk on hawk situation. By the time the man ventured outside, the larger hawk, which we theorize to have been a Cooper’s Hawk, was gone and the smaller hawk, lay injured on the ground. The Good Samaritan scooped him up and transported him to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport for evaluation and treatment. It turned out to be a species that had never been admitted to our shelter before, because the only time we see a Merlin, which is a Falcon rather than a Hawk, in this area is when they are passing through during migration. You may be asking, what’s the difference between a hawk and a falcon? Falcons have notched beaks while hawks have a curved beak. Falcons also use their beaks to attack prey, while hawks use the talons on their feet to kill prey, so their hunting methods are completely different. Also, hawks are generally larger in size than falcons. A thorough examination of the admitted Merlin revealed a laceration under one wing and numerous puncture wounds from the larger bird’s talons. He was treated for shock and his injuries cleaned and dressed to prevent infection, as well as to promote healing. From the beginning of his stay with OWLS, he was a good eater (down-right famished!!) In the wild, Merlins eat a variety of birds from sparrows to quail, and large insects, such as dragonflies, don’t go unnoticed. After calculating that the time needed for him to recover and get back into shape for his return to the wild will be extensive, the decision was made to transfer him to Cape Fear Raptor Center for the extended stay he required. In addition, it will give him the opportunity to work with the Falconer they have on staff at their center. Merlins are small but fierce falcons who are powerful fliers. They look similar to the more common American Kestrel familiar to this area, especially in coloring, but the Merlin is broader and heavily built, with females stockier than males. Male Merlins are dark gray with a lighter chest that almost looks striped or mottled in dark brown. Females and immature Merlins are more brown all over than gray. A Merlin is 9 to 13 inches long with a wingspan of 20 to 29 inches. They have pointy wings and a medium tail that is dark in color and sports thin, white bands from rump to tip. Their eyes and beak are dark and their slender feet are yellow with black talons. This specific bird of prey has the least amount of markings than any other type of hawk or falcon. Merlins usually nest in forested areas and along waterway edges but have adapted to loss of habitat by moving into towns and cities up north. During migration, we may see them in our coastal regions where flocks of small songbirds or shorebirds reside. It would be very rare to see a Merlin nesting in eastern North Carolina because of their very northern breeding range. Even Ohio is considered south of its breeding range. It is interesting to note that after a male Merlin has wooed and won his mate with his “extreme” acrobatic displays, they look for a “pre-owned” nest together rather than build their own. They simply search out an abandoned crow’s, hawk’s or woodpecker’s nest and move in. The female usually lays 4 to 6 rusty brown eggs that are incubated for 28 to 32 days. In another 30 days after hatching, the young will fledge but still be dependent upon their parents for another four weeks or more. It’s tough out there for infant Merlins though, because statistics show that only one in three infants make it to adulthood. We, wildlife rehabilitators at the shelter, feel honored to have played a role in saving this one! Merlins have had a few nicknames since Medieval times and used to be referred to as Pigeon Hawks or Lady Hawks, although they are not hawks at all. They have also been called “The Falcon for a Lady” when used as a falconry bird because of its petite size. The greatest threats to Merlins are pesticide use, loss of habitat, predators such as larger birds of prey and speed injuries. Although they are reported as capable of the most agile aerial maneuvers of all hawks and falcons, they sometimes focus so intently on their prey when hunting that when they swoop in at top speed for the catch they have been known to suffer collision with an obstacle in its path. Merlins are powerful, straight path fliers who don’t understand the words glide or pause. The oldest Merlin on record is said to have lived 13 winters. That is one careful or lucky falcon that may have figured out the need to glide and pause occasionally!! Merlins are widespread during migration, but seeing them is very unpredictable, so when you are out for a walk or driving by and suddenly see a flock of birds burst into flight from a bush, tree or shoreline, you just might have a Merlin in the area. You will have to scan the sky quickly because they are so fast they will be out of range in just a few seconds. Good Luck!

best always and Happy Thanksgiving!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All