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Meet the continent’s littlest falcon

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American kestrel

American kestrels are North America’s littlest falcon, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t tough.

It can be tough being one of the smallest birds of prey. American kestrels are North America’s littlest falcon, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t tough. They hunt for insects and other small prey in open territories. You can usually find them perching on wire and poles, or hovering while facing into the wind, flapping and adjusting their tails to stay in place. They are one of the most colorful raptors. The males sport a slate-blue head and wings, with a rusty back and tail. Females have a warm red color on their wings, back and tail. Their most common call is an excited series of three to six “klee” notes lasting just over a second.

Food finders

Have you ever wondered how predatory birds find their prey? You or I could walk through a whole field and not see a single mount, but we don’t see what birds see. One key to the kestrel’s food-finding skills comes from the prey itself. Voles are a favorite for the birds, and meadow voles have a specific behavior. Like dogs, they use tiny squirts of urine to make their trails in the grass. This trail reflects UV light, which kestrels can easily see when soaring over fields. Unlike humans, birds can see ultraviolet light.

Home sweet home

Despite their fierce lifestyle, American kestels end up as prey for larger birds such as red-tailed hawks, American crows, and sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks. Unfortunately, kestrels are declining in many areas of their range, but offer nest boxes helps out these cavity-nesters. They tend to nest on the edge of more open areas, like fields. They use trees in these areas as a vantage point for hunting. Dead cavities can offer perfect nesting areas, but if unavailable, kestrels will readily nest in human-made nest boxes.

Most kestrels migrate from Northern Montana and don’t spend the winter there. However, they do live year-round in Southern Montana and Wyoming. Watch for these birds to brighten up the winter skies.

Kathy and her husband, John, own and operate the Wild Birds Unlimited, located in Billings and at www.wbu.com/billings. She is a certified bird feeding specialist and is past president of the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society.

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