Five little ones, covered with down and with their eyes not yet open, currently reside in a bird box in Hadley, Massachusetts. These chicks are American Kestrels (Falco sparverius), members of the smallest falcon species found in North America. These chicks are probably only a few days old, recently hatched from their brown speckled eggs, but it is hard to age them when they are still downy. Kestrels like to live in grassland areas with surrounding trees, where they can hunt for bugs and other small prey like mammals, reptiles, or amphibians. Here in the Pioneer Valley farm fields separated by treelines provide lovely neighborhoods for kestrel families like this one to occupy. Throughout their range in North and South America kestrels also live in deserts and alpine meadows. They are migratory, spending the winters closer to the equator, moving north during summers.
Kestrels are especially fierce members of the falcon family, using their feet and beaks to fight off enemies and protect their young if need be. Babies that have lost their down and are becoming ready to fledge will flip over on their backs to grab or scratch at any nest invaders with their sharp-taloned toes. Adult kestrels will pick fights with larger hawks or small birds over nesting cavities and territory. Despite their ferocity, kestrels do sometimes become prey for larger hawks, owls, or crows.
Hunting is part of the daily kestrel routine, with mom and dad sharing the hunting responsibilities when chicks hatch. They hunt during the day, using their powerful eyesight to corner prey and snatch it with their skillful feet. They can see ultraviolet light, and use this to track urine trails on the ground to capture small mammals like voles. Kestrels also have a romantic side, giving one another gifts of food during their courtship to prove their hunting skills to potential mates.
While kestrels are currently categorized as Least Concern for conservation status, their numbers were reduced by half between the 1960’s and early 2000’s. There are currently partnerships that help track American kestrels and understand their life cycles and breeding patterns. Habitat loss and pesticide use on farms threaten American kestrels and many of the prey species that they rely on, so increased awareness and interest can only benefit these tough little guys. We can only hope that the chicks just hatched here in Massachusetts will grow up strong and return to the Pioneer Valley to hunt and breed next season.