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In The Country

A Bird of a Different Color

Ranger Jen Miller
Cunningham Falls State Park

(May, 2011) Have you ever dreamed of what you would do if you were granted three wishes? Would you wish for super powers, a secure nest, health or unending happiness? Iím not sure how I would commit all my wishes but I know one for sure. And that one, I have a sense, would answer many of the dreams just mentioned. I wish I was a bird, a kestrel to be specific. Kestrels are not only gifted with flight, but posses "super powers", are colorful, courageous, and beneficial to the world at large in spite of their small stature. Kestrels are the rare mixture of grace, power, and pure spunk.

The American kestrel, sometimes known as the Sparrow Hawk, is the smallest falcon in North America. It belongs to the genus Falco, which separates itís lineage from that of hawks despite the similarities in appearance. A few key physical adaptations separate falcons from their brethren and make them finely tuned hunting machines. The term falcon comes from the Latin word, falx, meaning sickle. The sickle shape is echoed throughout the formation of the falconís talons, beak, and wings. Falcons have long, slender toes with piercing talons. The beak has a thin, sharp tip and is notched. The notch acts like a tooth and is used to pluck the feathers of the favored food source Ė other birds. The wings are more aerodynamic and slender than that of hawks and allow falcons to reach incredibly fast speeds. In fact, the Peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on Earth as it dives at speeds of 200 mph in pursuit of fleeing prey.

All of these adaptations are apparent in the American kestrel housed at the Aviary in Cunningham Falls State Park. This kestrel, a male, will most likely announce your presence to the rest of the Aviaryís residents with the characteristic cry, killy, killy, killy! The call is punctuated with a quick head bob and flip of the tail as he sways authoritatively on his swing. We know that he is a he because of his coloring. Kestrels are one of the only birds of prey that display sexual dimorphism. This means that there is a visible difference in the coloration and/ or markings between the sexes. Male kestrels have bluish-gray wings and a solid cinnamon tail, while females sport black barring on the wings and tail and are more cinnamon colored overall. The striking contrasts of black, blue, and rusty brown partnered with the telling head and tail bob make the American kestrel easy to identify in the wild.

Kestrels are often seen along Rt. 15 perched on power lines that are incorporated into agricultural lands. Edge habitats such as wooded areas next to farms and orchards make perfect habitats for wild kestrels. The birds hunt insects, small birds and rodents in fields and nest in the cavities of dead trees in the surrounding woods. These tiny raptors can be a successful competent of an integrated pest management plan and are a beautiful alternative to pesticide use. Strategically placed man-made nest boxes are often utilized by kestrel pairs and can encourage their presence in a farmerís field. Nest box plans can be found at http://hawkmountain.org/index.php?pr=Kestrel_Nestboxes

Unfortunately, our captive kestrel didnít get to spend much time in the wild. As a fledgling, he flew into a barbed wire fence and severely damaged one of his wings. A partial amputation of the wing was performed by a veterinarian. Kestrels have a unique ability to hover in mid-air as they search for food. This is accomplished by flying at equal speed with the opposing wind current. Studies have shown that kestrels are not just looking for prey items but can also see ultraviolet radiation. Talk about super powers! This ability is put to a practical use as they are able to visualize urine trails left by moles marking their underground tunnels. Because of his injury, the kestrel can not fly well enough to hover and successfully hunt.

It is an unfortunate trend that less and less kestrels are being found in the wild. Although, they are still considered a "common" bird species, scientists and wild life rehabilitators across the country have noted a sharp decrease in wild populations. The exact cause has yet to be determined but two likely culprits are loss of habitat and toxicity related to the ingestion of pesticide laden insects. Kestrels and many other bird species need dead trees for shelter and/or for food. Public lands donít just offer hiking trails, camping, and swimming for people but also precious habitat for wildlife. Dead and downed trees are an important component of that habitat. What can you do?

- Report kestrel sights to the University of Minnesota, Raptor Center at: http://kestrelwatch.ahc.umn.edu/kestrel_home.cfm.

- Learn more about sustainable agriculture and ways that you can support it and/ or practice it!

- Leave dead trees to the birds. Make sure that the tree is not a safety hazard then sit back a watch the tree become a "log hotel".

As I finish this article I am reminded of the many mornings I have gone to open the Aviary in rain, snow and sunshine. Before the gate was even opened, the kestrel would let his and my presence be known. To have that occurrence as a daily routine is a dream come true.

Read other articles by Ranger Jen Miller