Everyone has a favorite sign of spring. For some, it's a welcome return of red-breasted robins. For others, it's the first crocus pushing through cold, dormant soil to punctuate the drab landscape with just a suggestion of color.
My favorite harbingers of spring returned this week. I was driving home when I saw the season's first kestrel, perched on an electrical wire along my gravel road, and immediately I looked for another.
There she was, a couple of spans away, and as I watched the female flew to the perched male, and both swooped above the road in graceful, slashing flight, almost as though they recognized me, too.
I'm sure they didn't. They were likely consorting in the moment of the season. Turns out, kestrels are a lot like college kids on spring break. Females of the species, the smallest of the falcons, are described as "promiscuous" for a solid month in the spring before picking a male and turning monogamous to raise their chicks and defend their territory.
The falcons prefer to nest in cavities, whether a hole in the trunk of a dead tree or a crevice in an old building. They'll even nest in the cutbanks of a stream or, rarely, appropriate the abandoned nest of another species, especially the thrown-together shambles that is a magpie nest.
Kestrels, called "sparrow hawks" a generation ago, occupy most of North and South America, but the small, nimble falcons that summer farthest north tend to head far to the south for the winter and return when foods are available. Kestrels are omnivores, preferring large insects like grasshoppers when they're available but satisfied with mice, voles and small birds when they're not.
I couldn't help but wonder what my neighborhood kestrels were thinking as they perched on the wire, surveying a sea of sterile snow. Had they returned too early? Were they simply pausing on their journey even farther north?
I didn't have time to linger on the question. As I passed beneath them, my resident pair parried over the road and cavorted through the naked cottonwoods. They had each other, even if their home wasn't quite ready for them.