If a tiny hawk hovers over an open grassy area in Florida between May and July, that little bird, or more accurately, falcon, is a Southeastern American Kestrel. The northern migrant species has already left for cooler climates. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation contends “recognizing the difference between the two subspecies solely by physical characteristics is nearly impossible with the naked eye as the two birds are so similar. The most reliable way to determine the subspecies is by documenting the time of the year that the sightings occur.” However, the bird, also known as a sparrow hawk, offers a loud, ringing “killy-killy-killy” or “klee-klee-klee” no matter which species is darting through the air. That sound caught my attention recently on the Mainlands Golf Course in Pinellas Park as a family of four Southeastern American Kestrels dove from power lines to hover over fairways before descending to snatch a grasshopper or moth.
I became fascinated with birds of prey after my brother and I discovered a pair of American Kestrels nesting in Quarter Circle A ranch’s barn. My interest took me to the Parrish Elementary School’s library where I found The Hooded Hawk Mystery (1954) by Franklin W. Dixon in which the Hardy Boys solve a kidnapping and save a prince from India, who was held captive by a gang. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Fleetwood, who encouraged my love of reading, suggested My Side of the Mountain (1959) by Jean Craighead George in which Sam runs away to the Catskill Mountains in New York to live in a huge hollowed-out tree with his peregrine falcon, Frightful. Later, she challenged me to read T. H. White’s The Goshawk (1951), which was an autobiographical account of his attempt to train a male goshawk named Gos. Armed with that information, I knew I was not ready to train a hawk without a mentor.
According to the Iowa Raptor Project research, “despite the generalist nature of this species (American Kestrel), counts of long-term Breeding Bird Surveys, Christmas Bird Counts, migration data, and even nest box programs are showing regional population declines throughout the continent over the last century.” Research presented at the 2017 Kestrel Symposium, Brandywine Zoo, Wilmington, DE indicated that American Kestrel populations have declined as much as 43% in the past century. A significant strategy being used to combat the population decline has been to encourage landowners to install nest boxes on their properties, monitor the boxes, and report success or failure to organizations that study the birds.
The American Kestrel Partnership’s Bosch KestrelCam, located in Boise, Idaho at The Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey, offers a sixth year of providing a window into the world of American Kestrels in their first days of life.
An Audubon podcast gives an interesting view of The American Kestrel, a Tiny Killer Built for Speed.
From the 10th chapter, “The Barn,” of Growing up Floridian:
When hay bales filled the loft, that space took on new dimensions for games of hide and seek or war with attempts to tumble bales on top of each other. There were times when we helped fill that loft by stacking bales as they came off a new-fangled conveyer belt that was propped up through the east end loft door. One fascinating surprise was finding a pair of nesting American Kestrels had laid four eggs in a corner just inside the western loft door. Smokey and I were able to sneak up every
day or so to watch the chicks develop. I read every piece of information I could find on falconry in our meager school library and concluded I was not ready to try to train a hawk to hunt. I was lucky enough to see the last chick take his solo flight into the nearest pine tree early one evening. I sat in the same spot in the loft several months later as a violent thunderstorm marched across the pastures delivering a great lightning bolt that exploded the biggest limb on that pine tree. The view from the loft gave a new perspective on the flat acres that rolled out from the barn to the south, west, and north. The view of the tree line to the east allowed me to imagine but not see the the dark creek flowing beneath the trees.