Volume 12, Issue 38 ~ September 16-22, 2004
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Earth Journal
by Gary Pendleton

Kestrel on the Line

The rapacious robin preys on earthworms; the fierce and terrible wren hunts for caterpillars; the swift and agile swallow captures airborne victims. They are all predators.

However birds of prey usually refers to birds such as hawks and owls. There is another word to describe such birds: raptors.

Falcons are raptors; they are the swifter, more agile members of the branch of the family tree that includes hawks and vultures. More than 20 species of falcon occur throughout the world. They range from six to 20 inches in length. They are usually boldly patterned — and some are brightly colored — and they have big, powerful wings and long tails.

Three species of falcon inhabit Maryland: the peregrine falcon, the merlin and the American kestrel. To me, their dramatic-sounding names suggest ancient origins and mythical connections. The merlin, for example, might have been named for the wizard of King Arthur’s Court, although the connection is not clear. The names are ancient, predating the European discovery of North America, for the American falcons are named for their European cousins, which they closely resemble.

Of all American falcons, the kestrel is by far the most common and the smallest. Male American kestrels are a splendid combination of red, blue, black and brown. Females are similarly patterned but less colorful.

American kestrels were once called sparrow hawks, but that name is misleading in that it suggests their diet consists of small birds. Kestrels will eat small birds, but they prefer to hunt for large insects and small rodents.

Solitary kestrels frequently perch on telephone wires, near (but not too near) other birds such as the slightly larger mourning dove. The kestrel is the one with the squared-off tail and the thick neck and head. Sometimes they demonstrate their superb aerial skills by hovering above their prey before striking. These exquisite creatures are common along the highways and roads of Southern Maryland.

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