Readers’ wildlife photos

March 24, 2015 • 7:50 am

Continuing right on with Kestrel Week. . . . Only kidding: I don’t have enough kestrels to fill a week’s worth of posts. But Joe McClain’s photos of kestrels yesterday made me realize that while small birds are cute, small predatory birds are even cuter. There’s something especially adorable about a tiny owl, like a saw-whet owl or a pygmy owl, and about a tiny raptor, like the kestrel. I suppose it’s the combination of their small size and fierceness.

And, appropriately, the photographer at Colin Franks Photography (Facebook page here) sent me a bunch of kestrel photos yesterday. They were so nice that I’m going to devote today’s installment to these photos alone.

There are several species called “kestrel”, but the New World species is the American kestrel, Falco sparverius, also known as the “sparrow hawk”.


These are light birds (the smallest North American falcon), weighing about 100 g (4 ounces; females are a tad larger than males). Their main diet includes large insects, supplemented with rodents, which they usually pick off the ground.


Falconry with kestrels (from Wikipedia):

 One important use of American kestrels is in falconry. It is definitely not a beginner’s bird, due to the careful weight control needed to maintain the kestrel’s flying weight without killing it by either over or underfeeding. This is made problematic by their small size. Falconers experienced in extracting the best performance the species is capable of report they are highly reliable on the normal game of sparrows and starlings, particularly in ambushing this prey by surprise when released out of a vehicle window. More aggressive individuals are sometimes capable of capturing prey up to approximately twice their own body weight, allowing the occasional capture of true game birds such as quail and dove. However, most falconers interested in the reliable taking of such game do prefer larger falcons or hawks. The advantage the American kestrel offers the experienced falconer is its suitability to simple and urban falconry not requiring large tracts of land or the use of hunting dogs.



Fun kestrel fact:

When nature calls, nestling kestrels back up, raise their tails, and squirt feces onto the walls of the nest cavity. The feces dry on the cavity walls and stay off the nestlings. The nest gets to be a smelly place, with feces on the walls and uneaten parts of small animals on the floor.



These photos are all of males, but there is a pronounced sexual dimorphism, which you can see at the bottom of this Cornell bird page. (The female is larger and lacks the slate-blue head and tail.)



Here’s its range, from Wikipedia:

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 7.09.05 AM

Like many birds, kestrels have the ability to keep their heads stationary when their bodies are moving, which enables them to keep focused on prey (or predators) regardless of environmental disturbances. This male kestrel, Jet, demonstrates that ability:

Kestrels also have the ability to hover in the air, presumably zeroing in on a victim:

A calling kestrel (you can hear three of their calls here):


EDIT from Matthew Cobb:

What better accompaniment to these stupendous photos than the fabulous poem about the kestrel, The Windhover, by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), a poet whom Jerry and I both admire. And yes, he was a Catholic priest and his poetry is infused with his religion.

 The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
  dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.


26 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos

    1. Thanks Evan. Yes, they are very shy birds, and difficult to get near. A 600mm reach (and some cropping) helps, but they are not a large bird, so one still needs to get fairly close.

  1. In Britain our kestrel is also know as the windhover. It is my favourite native bird because of the way it floats in the air. I also like hummingbirds, for the same reason.

  2. What an interesting study in contrasts: extremely cute, yet also a highly efficient killer; graceful form and elegant coloring, yet lives in disgusting filth.

    She: “Now look what you’ve done! You’ve sprayed it all over the walls!”

    He: “What? At least I didn’t get any on the kids!”

  3. First time I ever saw one of these, ~20yrs ago, it was perched on top of a sidewalk lamp in late afternoon, outside my office window, which at that time was in the biotech center down on the Monongahela River a few mi from downtown Pittsburgh. I couldn’t believe the coloration and had no idea what I was looking at, so I drew a hasty sketch with arrows for colors and FAXed it off to my post-doc mentor and world-class birder in Stockholm, who I figured would still be in the office at nearly 11pm.

    A half hr later the FAX began to whirr. I think I still have the reply somewhere, written on what I’d sent: “John: My first reaction is there is no such bird. But wait. Yes! You have drawn a kestrel! Very good!! Hans.”

    Best use I ever made of a FAX machine.

  4. I especially like the 4th photo, front view of the kestrel launching from a post with its wings fully stretched straight upwards.

  5. I’ve only ever seen one once and that was in December 1996 in the canals at Venice. I had been fortunate enough to win a short holiday at the Bel Air (and, YES, it’s very nice). I’d parked up at Santa Monica and walked down through Venice Beach to Marina Del Rey then I walked back alongside the canals and it was perched in a tree, species unknown (to me), just above head height. It never batted an eyelid. At first, with the teardrop, I thought it was a peregrine. But the Kestrel, hummingbirds, pelicans and a Harris Hawk it was one of the hi-lights of my brief sojourn.

    Then I had to fly back to the UK, in December! C’est la vie.

    1. The Common Buzzard, Buteo buteo, is also able to hover and weighs in at about 800g or approx four times the weight of a European Kestrel. It does normally require a headwind to fly into to achieve this but it is a normal, frequent part of their behavioural repertoire and quite an impressive sight in such a big bird.

      1. Good point, and I’ve watched ravens hover similarly.

        …but these kestrels are engaging in powered hovering, which requires vastly more energy than sailing….


  6. Kestrel magic. Thanks for the additional photos and information. The photo of the Kestrel taking off- front view, with wings vertical- is truly amazing.

  7. Terrific shooting and facts, it is quite likely I’ll never see one live, but we did have an inter harbour ferry called Kestrel. I think it was a bit of a mismatch going by these shots..

  8. The species called “sparrow hawk” here in Sweden, Accipiter nisus, doesn’t hover.

    I think that is a way to tell the difference between the sparrow hawk and the “tower falcon”, Falco tinnunculus, from a distance. The latter species hover over fields. I remember the first time I saw that, because it was surprise for me they could do so.

  9. Beautiful photos of a beautiful and interesting bird. I wonder if the small bird I saw in my lilac a few years ago, ripping the feathers off its prey, was a kestrel. It gave a new meaning to “bird feeder,” which it was near. Too bad I couldn’t get a good look at it.

    BTW, chickens will also keep their heads stationary while you move their bodies. Of course, chickens are predators of insects and I’ve seen them go after mice as well.

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