Due to its small size (about that of a robin) and colorful plumage, the American kestrel is sometimes mistaken for a songbird. However, its curved beak and talons prove that this is no songbird. Despite being nicknamed the sparrow hawk, the kestrel is actually the smallest falcon in North America. Its Latin name, Falco sparverius or “falcon of the sparrows” is also somewhat misleading in that it does not exclusively eat sparrows, as the majority of its diet typically consists of mice and insects, such as grasshoppers.
American kestrels prefer open country such as fields, meadows, and marshes. In areas where deforestation has made room for farming their population has increased. In return, the kestrel has proven to be a great friend to the farmer because it readily eats many of the species which farmers consider pests. Unfortunately, some people use poisons to control for these pests. This can be a problem for the kestrel as many pesticides are dangerous to non-target species including birds, mammals, and even children. Therefore, a better alternative is to encourage wildlife such as American kestrels and barn owls to live near these farms and let them control the pest population. Both of these species are cavity nesters that will use tree cavities or old building structures. If there is a lack of available cavities, both of these species will readily use nest boxes. The great news is that the cost of constructing these boxes is insignificant when compared to the cost of using expensive pesticides.
In wildlife rehabilitation, it is not uncommon during the summer months to hear that somebody has found “orphaned” American kestrel fledglings and has taken them inside to provide them with food. However, the most likely case is that the kestrel parents are nearby providing their young with food while they are learning how to fly and hunt on their own. If fed the wrong diet, these birds will develop Metabolic Bone Disease. This means that their bones have not been developed properly due to an improper ratio of calcium to phosphorous is their diet. For the safety of the birds it is important that people not care for these birds without the required licenses and permits. The best option is to check for the kestrel’s parents. If the parents are indeed absent, it is then acceptable to bring the orphan to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who will try to place the kestrel with others of its species so as to keep them from imprinting on humans. When a bird imprints it identifies the subject as its parent. If the bird becomes imprinted on humans rather than its own species it will most likely be considered non releasable into the wild so it is especially important to prevent this from happening.
As do all falcons, kestrels have a second point on their beaks called the tomial tooth. This is an adaptation that allows falcons to more easily hunt because they can use it to sever the vertebrae and spinal cord of their prey while in flight whereas other raptors rely mainly on their talons. Falcons have also been observed holding their prey with their talons while using their beaks to eat during flight.
all raptors display
reverse-sexual dimorphism in size where the females are larger than the
on average, kestrels, merlins, and northern harriers are unique in that
are the only non-owl raptors in New York that also display color
dimorphism. While the females have
browner rufous-colored wings and backs, the males have dazzling
wing feathers that contrast with their rufous backs.
Females also have striped tails while males
have a solid rufous-colored tail.
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Steve & Wendy Hall
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