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Bird on a Wire: Look for American Kestrels Overhead

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

American kestrels are stunning, speedy, colorful, dive-bombing predators in tiny packages. Scan utility pole wires along fields and you just might get to see these master hunters right here in Will County.

An American kestrel on a power line.
An American kestrel. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Zook)

Clocking in at 3 ounces to 6 ounces, they are the smallest falcons that can be found year-round in Illinois. Hold a cell phone in your hand. That’s about what these birds weigh. Size-wise, they are about the size of a robin.

To be a falcon, you must be a diurnal (active during the day) bird of prey with long, pointed wings and fast, powerful flight. Known for speed and their incredible hunting skills, other Illinois falcons include the merlin and peregrine falcon.

What do they look like?


American kestrels have eyespots that look like eyes on the back of their heads. Scientists think this is to confuse other animals. They also have two vertical black stripes on each side of their head, starting under their eyes. They almost look like sideburns. You’ll see some slate blue-gray on top of their heads.

An American kestrel on a plant stem.
This is a female kestrel. Notice the reddish-brown wings. (Photo via Shutterstock)

They are one of the only birds of prey that have noticeable differences between males and females. Females have reddish-brown wings and a light tan chest with heavy streaking. Males have slate blue-gray wings with a whiter chest and a little streaking that sometimes looks like a line of black dots. Males are more vibrant in the sunlight.

Lookalikes


This might sound odd, but people often mistake American kestrels for mourning doves. They are about the same size, and both are buff and have stocky bodies with small heads. If you see a bunch together, they are mourning doves. But if there is one perched by itself, it just might be an American kestrel.

 

Words to know

Cavity: An empty space in a solid object.

Diurnal: During the day.

Stocky: Broad and sturdily built.

Vibrant: Bright and striking.

 

Next, look at their tails. If it comes to a point, it is a mourning dove. But if it is wide and flat at the bottom, it could be an American kestrel.

Focus on their faces. Do you see a couple of vertical black bars? It’s a kestrel! Their coloring might help, too. Look for that rusty orange and slate blue.

What do they sound like?


Listen for their calls of “klee, klee, klee” or “killy, killy, killy.” They are more vocal during breeding season, which in Illinois is from April through June.

Amazing hunters


American kestrels are born hunters. You might see them perched up high. That’s because they are scanning farm fields, meadows and grasslands for their favorite foods. No perches around? No problem. Kestrels can soar high in the sky and hover while they are looking for their prey. They like looking in open areas with shorter grasses.

She spots a vole! Down she soars, using sharp talons to clutch her prey, delivering a sharp killing bite to the back of the head!

Kestrels might eat smaller prey like grasshoppers on the ground or as a mid-air snack. Larger prey is brought back to their perch to enjoy. Insects like grasshoppers, beetles, cicadas, dragonflies, butterflies and moths make good meals. They also eat spiders; small birds; mammals like mice and shrews; amphibians; and reptiles. Too much food? No problem. In the winter and fall, American kestrels will cache, or hide, their food to save for later.

Kestrels must keep a watchful eye because some animals call them food. Larger raptors, corn snakes and rat snakes will all eat this bird of prey.

Nesting habits


American kestrels are cavity dwellers. They want to nest in a hole in a tree or in the side of a building. They might take over an old flicker’s nest. If they like a spot, a pair will come back year after year.

What they are not going to do is waste any time decorating. They don’t add any stuffing or moss to make it more comfortable. The female will scrape a little bit of a depression into the bottom of the cavity, but that is it.

In Illinois, every year between April and June, kestrels will lay three to five eggs. The female watches over the eggs while the male hunts. About two weeks after the eggs hatch both parents start hunting.

We are losing old trees with cavities in them, in part because people take down dying trees. People think the tree is dead, it doesn’t look good anymore and it has no use. But they forget about all the great habitat dying and dead trees provide. Along with a lot of other cavity dwellers, kestrels are losing their homes. These birds of prey are still pretty common in Illinois, but their numbers have gone down. Do you want to help? Build and install a nesting box for them!

How do you see them?


You can look for kestrels in forest preserves with grassland and a couple of tall trees. Sometimes they might even be in suburban neighborhoods or in city vents. But one of the best places to search is when you are driving on country roads along farmland. Just watch the power lines. An American kestrel might be watching, searching for its next meal.

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