By Andrea Gaines
With dramatic coloring – and a body almost like an oversized parakeet – the American Kestrel is one of the most exotic birds you will see in Loudoun County.
That perfectly shaped aviator you see on a passing telephone wire just might be a kestrel … so slow down, pull over to the side and take a good look. Is it relatively small? Does it have a distinctively small curved beak? Does it have dark markings and dots on its head and breast area and a pretty grayish head? Does it have short cropped wings? Does it look like it is about to take off like a rocket after something?
Kestrels are small, open-land falcons – perhaps the most common diurnal (daytime) raptors (hawks, owls, falcons, etc.) in North America.
While declining according to recent local bird counts, the American Kestrel is still a fairly easy bird to find in appropriate habitat. but, many suspect that it is in a long-term decline in northern Virginia.
The loss of open habitat from human development and the natural reforestation of former agricultural areas may contribute to this. But, kestrels also face competition from native birds such as the Cooper’s Hawk. All time highs for Cooper’s and all time lows for kestrels seem to correlate …
Populations of the American Kestrel also may be affected by a scarcity of nest sites.
The Kestrel is a “secondary cavity nester” which nests in holes in trees, rock cavities, and crevices in cliffs, as well as artificial nest boxes and even small spaces in buildings. (Leave these spaces undisturbed!)
The number of suitable breeding cavities limits the breeding density of the American Kestrel, and the availability of secondary nest sites.
Both sexes of the American Kestrel are easily identified by the thick, vertical black streaks behind and in front of their white cheeks, or “mustache” marks, but they also have a much less noticeable black spot behind each back mustache mark, toward the rear of the rufus (redish) nape.
These black spots resemble a pair of eyes (ocelli, or false eyes) when the bird is viewed either from the rear or from the front when the head of the bird is bent over working on prey. The American Kestrel’s habit of bobbing its head may help make its neck spots look even more elastic, except perhaps to a voracious Cooper’s Hawk which has otherwise identified it by its prominent “mustache” marks or otherwise!