Hope is the Thing With Feathers

There are so many things that need saving it can really be demoralizing. Whales, wolves, panthers, funny little owls, hundreds of songbirds, frogs. The list is endless. All you have to do is say the word “rainforest” and you summon up images of destruction. It’s why I don’t believe in teaching elementary kids about the rainforest at all. Let them enjoy the pleasure of nature and develop a love for it, before you discourage them with tales of extinction and despair. That people think the only interesting nature exists thousands of miles away, really only demonstrates the need for education about local natural history. There is a fascinating backstory everywhere you look, no matter where you look.

The American Kestrel is a bird in need of intervention. It depends on areas of grassland, and so is getting squeezed out of survival by the minute. Instead of farms with fields, we now have either forests or building sites, so things are tough for grassland birds like grasshopper sparrows, woodcock, upland sandpipers, meadowlarks, kestrels and others.

The American Kestrel is a tiny falcon that resembles its larger cousin the Peregrine, only with a swankier color scheme. It has blue, cream, black and rusty shades of feathers, along with stripes beneath the eyes that cut down on the glare during high-speed chases after fleeing prey. All the better to see you with, my dear. The female of the species is color-wise a little more subdued, the better to remain camouflaged as she sits on a nest.

Perched on a fence, nest box or other spot overlooking the meadow, a kestrel darts off to snatch prey out of the air. In that way, it resembles a flycatcher. But it has the ability to hover in the air scanning the area and adjusting its trajectory before diving out of the glare like a Kamikaze pilot. The hovering would make you think of a hummingbird. Because the kestrel is diminutive in comparison to just about every other bird of prey, from far off it isn’t too hard to believe you are looking at a hummer, but only for a moment. Kestrels are about the size of a robin, and the hovering behavior is a great skill. Some people still refer to the kestrel as a “sparrow hawk” (I can’t help thinking of Foghorn Leghorn and his precocious sidekick here), from its ability to take down smaller birds.

Kestrels are faithful, both to a mate, and to a nesting place. Research on one pair showed that they returned to the same nesting spot for six years. It is a remarkable statistic, given that the bird has a mortality rate of nearly 50%. Kestrels themselves are frequently the prey of larger birds, and their own reproduction depends on the availability of cavities within which to make a nest.

They are well adapted to nest boxes, and this is where Hill-Stead and Art Gingert come in. Art is on a mission to save the American Kestrel. With a keen admiration for the little bird, a wide experience as a naturalist and a steady arm with a hammer, drill and ladder, Art is scouring the state for locations that might tempt the kestrel to nest in one of his specially-designed boxes. They are fashioned out of quality wood, and follow a design he has developed based on his long experience.

Art and I put a box up the other day in one of our meadows. One of Hill-Stead’s many claims to fame is the three full-sized elms that have managed to survive the ravages of Dutch Elm disease. One of them, and by far the prettiest in my opinion, sits out in one of our hay meadows. No other tree is near it and the eye is drawn automatically to its graceful form. A Kestrel would probably see it as easily as we do. At least, that is what we hope. Art carefully hung the box, even using a level to make sure the look of it was pleasing. Now all we have to do is attract the birds. It’s a gamble to be sure. There aren’t even that many Kestrels left, comparatively speaking, and it may be vain of us to imagine that one or two will happen along and notice our box.

But there is much to be said for preserving local treasures. Just ask some of those men and animals that used to live in the rainforest.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

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6 Responses to “Hope is the Thing With Feathers”

  1. Christine McMorris Says:

    Hi Diane- just discovered this blog and I’m loving it! Hope all is well with you and that you still love Bohemian waxwings…your old fellow bird discoverer, Devlin, is in high school (!), still enjoying math, science and now music. (In fact, if you need any help on the trails this July, please let me know).
    Back to work, and thanks for the blog! All the best – Christine & Devlin

    • Diane Tucker Says:

      HI! I am so delighted to hear from you! I so often think of you and wonder what my Devlin is up to. I have been tempted to stop when I drive by but I am shy. How did you find the blog? Warmest Regards, Diane

  2. Bridget Willard Says:

    I love it!

  3. Patsy Says:

    Great! I loved reading it and am sure your box will attract the bird. Foghorn Leghorn..Lord you do dig don’t you?

  4. Melissa Says:

    Lovely post. The kestrel is a gorgeous little bird. Here in NYC, they seem to be thriving. We have quite a few pairs nesting in Manhattan. They seem to like the hollow cornices of old buildings. It’s one of those odd conservation tales, that while their population as a whole is suffering, the urban kestrels just might be on the rebound. I hope you can help to bring them back to your area.

  5. Diane Tucker Says:

    Melissa-Thank you for your kind and interesting words. It makes sense to me that the kestrel would do well in Manhattan. I bet the Upper West Side has many. I really appreciate you looking at our blog. Please come again. Cheers, Diane

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