Pint-sized predator: American Kestrel status and where to find them

Our smallest falcon is shrinking in numbers; here's how to help.

I spent part of last week looking for birds on rural Midwestern roads, something I’m wont to do on occasion. It seemed every mile or so there was another American Kestrel perched up on a power line, surveying a field, leaning over as they do when they’re also grasping prey. It gave off the impression that the population of kestrels, small falcons once known as Sparrow Hawks, might be doing well. But that’s not the case.

“…just because a bird is easy to see doesn’t mean the species is thriving,” warned a piece in the Spring 2019 issue of Living Bird. “Data collected from migration counts, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Breeding Bird Survey, and nest-box monitoring programs indicate declines nearing 50 percent in American Kestrel populations in North America, with some northeastern states experiencing even larger losses.”

American Kestrel takes on Short-eared Owl in today’s Chirpionship final of Indiana Audubon’s March Migration Madness. You can vote for the winner by going to IAS’ Facebook page before 8 p.m. today. Kestrels are a fan favorite. They’re fierce predators that are about the size of a Mourning Dove. When I’m looking for kestrels, I often have Mourning Doves on my mind. I find the doves’ silhouette similar to that of a kestrel, and they also have some similarities in the way they tilt a bit in flight, kind of like a jet fighter that teeters a bit before landing on an aircraft carrier. They both like power lines, and they’re both here year-round. Ultimately what readily distinguishes kestrels is the way they hunt by hovering over fields, highway medians and other grassy areas.

I’ve found kestrels in all sorts of settings, most anywhere there’s open country. Suburban parks, ballfields, prairies and woodland edges are good places to look. But I also saw (and heard) them a lot when I lived in the Chicago neighborhood of Uptown. In fact, a pair nested in a laundry vent on about the seventh story of the old Lawrence House apartment building.

And that brings us back to the sad stuff and what can be done about it. The decline of kestrels is in part due to habitat loss and suburban development, but it’s also about a lack of nesting cavities. They favor old woodpecker holes and cavities in barns and wood buildings. There are just fewer of those around.

There’s more information about the situation and plans for making a kestrel box here. It may seem unlikely that a kestrel would nest on your property, but it’s really not that far-fetched, especially in suburban Chicago. And as whimsical as March Migration Madness has been, for birds like kestrels it also has a purpose, too.

Pick: American Kestrel

A sense of place: Pointe Mouillee State Game Area

My travels last week also took me to the extreme northwestern corner of Lake Erie, where the Huron River empties into a broad estuary. Pointe Mouillee (pronounced moo-YAY) State Game Area is 7,000-plus acres of impoundments, wetlands, waterways and wet meadows. The refuge is ideally situated along a migratory flyway that skirts southeastern Michigan and southern Ontario. Just north of here, the Detroit River Hawk Watch has seen astounding flights of raptors through the years.

The first impression of Point Moo (as it’s sometimes called) was a very good one: a group of 30 or so Bonaparte’s Gulls were flitting tern-like over a wet meadow (I’ve found Bonaparte’s to be much more plentiful around Lake Erie than around Lake Michigan for whatever reason). Then we heard scores of chorus frogs calling from just to the south of the same spot. When we got to Lake Erie, there were lots of Ring-necked Ducks and Bufflehead for as far as our binoculars could see (a scope would have come in handy). Inland from there we had Northern Shoveler, American Black Duck and Blue-winged Teal.

We made our way back down a causeway to the south, where we added Green-winged Teal, Double-crested Cormorant, Osprey and Bald Eagle to our list. It was a warm April day, which made it easy to explore the site. Note that birders should basically stay away in hunting season in the fall.

If you go: I suggest checking out the area around the marina first, Campau Road and the headquarters to get the lay of the land. Then double back south toward Roberts Road, where you can drive to the causeway. There’s a parking area there, and it’s possible to walk out on the causeway for a lengthy stretch. I found this site very helpful in planning our visit.

TWiB Notes

Thanks to everyone who gave to “Monty and Rose II” before our March 31 deadline. If you’d still like to give, we can use the additional funds for closed captioning and Spanish translation……Common Loons aren’t typically thought of as Chicago birds, but they’re coming through in great numbers right now. The Chain O’Lakes are a great place to look for them……Chicago Ornithological Society’s Birds and Bytes series will feature “The Notorious Cowbird” this Thursday at 6 p.m. and a presentation by University of Illinois Ph.D. student Sarah Winnicki……An Eared Grebe in Belmont Harbor pleased many this week. The grebes are generally birds of the west that only make occasional appearances here.

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