Flora & Fauna: American Kestrel

The American kestrel (Falco sparverius) might not be the first bird you associate with cities but even if you haven’t spotted one that doesn’t mean there’s not one in your neighborhood.

These little raptors are the smallest on the entire continent – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t formidable predators.

Despite their ferocity, they also have to look out for larger raptors who may see them as a feast rather than a fellow bird of prey.

It’s pretty easy to tell the sex of the bird you’re looking at if you are close enough to see.

Mature male will have red tail feathers, while the females’ are blue.

They can often be spotted on power lines near open grassy areas, which make suitable perches from which they can survey for their next meal.

If you find yourself passing an unkempt field or sitting in a sports stadium, look up and you may be lucky enough to spot one of these beautiful little birds nesting in an overhang or perched on a tall fence.

They’re not particularly picky eaters and find everything from mice to large insects like moths and roaches to be fair game.

Locally, they are known to be spotted in their native field habitat in places like Mount Loretto on Staten Island.

Though the birds are known to inhabit grassland, they have also adapted well to city living – 75 nesting pairs have been documented in New York City alone where research indicates they may actually prefer developed areas, according to an article in The New York Times.

When you consider how small the city really is that’s quite a lot – and the researcher interviewed in their article believes it may be “the largest population of any urban area in North America”.

This finding is promising as the bird’s decline in the Northeast was largely assumed to be driven by habitat loss.

Their affinity for urban areas may be because the birds nest in cavities – dead trees and nesting boxes make good homes, but so do hollowed out cornices of buildings, the article points out.

It can be speculated that the promise of unstudied populations in cities may improve long-term survival prospects for the bird.

As someone who is very fond of birds, having worked on several research projects studying their wild populations in the past, kestrels have been a personal favorite and I hope they continue to be our neighbors for many generations to come.

You can learn more facts about Kestrels from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The New York Times article mentioned above is a highly recommended read for urban birders, “A Small Raptor at Home in the Big City“, by Jesse Greenspan.

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