American Kestrels live here, but rarely breed

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

The American Destrel is one of three common talcons
found in Louisiana. It prefers to nest in the piney woods

The American Kestrel is our smallest falcon. Once called the Sparrow Hawk, this diminutive killer tends to eat more large insects like dragonflies, katydids, and grasshoppers than small birds like sparrows. I've seen kestrels catching large dragonflies and eating them on the fly.

American Kestrels breed across North America from Mexico into Canada. However, they are rare breeders in our southern piney woods area. In fact, it's so rare to find them breeding in our region that reports of breeding kestrels draw much attention within the birding community.

Cold weather drives many kestrels southward. They arrive in good numbers by late September and depart by late April.

American Kestrels are beautiful birds, about the size of Blue Jays. They choose conspicuous locations to hunt and rest, often using on roadside utility poles and wires, often pumping their tails presumably to help them keep their balance. They are birds of open fields, meadows, and forest edges.

Male American Kestrels are smaller than females, a common situation with birds of prey. Both males and females have rusty brown backs but the male's wings are blue-gray color. The male has a black sub-terminal stripe on its tail but the female has a series of black stripes on its tail. Both males and females have black and white faces with double mustaches. Note dark spots on the white bellies and on the reddish backs.

Kestrels are not "hawks". They are "falcons". And, despite the fact that hawks and falcons are birds of prey and resemble each other, they are distantly related. The easiest way to separate falcons from hawks is to look at the ends of their wings. In falcons, the wings are pointed. In hawks, the wings are rounded.

In the South, kestrels prefer to nest in piney woods. They are cavity nesters but cannot excavate cavities. They normally use natural or abandoned woodpecker cavities to lay their 5-7 eggs. They will nest in bird houses constructed for them. Kestrels will also nest in nooks and crannies in buildings and one pair nested for several years in such habitat on the Louisiana State Capitol Building in Baton Rouge.

American Kestrels make a sharp call described as "klee, klee, klee," especially when hunting. A less common call is said to sound like "killy, killy, killy." These birds are unique in being able to hover rapidly beating their wings much like kingfishers do. This is when you are likely to hear them calling.

John James Audubon, the artist/naturalist, wrote a very interesting account of the American Kestrel which he called the Sparrow Hawk. He noted that he found a young male fledgling that could not yet fly. He took it home, named it Nero, and fed it with the remains of the small birds he had collected to use as models for his paintings of North American birds. He explained that the kestrel was fussy and would not eat putrid meat and did not like woodpecker flesh. By the time the bird could fly, it would grab small birds that Audubon threw to it on the fly. The kestrel harassed domestic ducks by flying and striking them. Unfortunately, it attacked a hen that was guarding its chicks and hen killed it!

There are three common falcons in Louisiana - the American Kestrel, the Merlin, and the Peregrine Falcon. Their relative sizes are reflected in their older common names - Sparrow Hawk, Pigeon Hawk, and Duck Hawk, respectively. Prairie Falcons have only recently been documented in Louisiana and the northern Gyrfalcon has never been found in our region.