The little female American Kestrel was frightened as she was being removed from her cage, her beak was open and her sharp talons were extended in a defensive position. She did not know that she was going to be set free.
Kay Neumann, director of Saving Our Avian Resources (S.O.A.R.) in Dedham Iowa brought the three month old bird to be released at the carp fishing tournament August 24th. She got the bird as a chick and raised it for ten weeks. It has been catching it own food in the S.O.A.R. aviary for the past two weeks- the bird was ready to be set free. Neumann said that Pattee Park was a good place for the release; there are lots of trees, water in Frog Creek, and the nearby North Raccoon River is a good migration corridor for the kestrel to follow as it flies south for the winter. The American Kestrel is the most common falcon in the Midwest. Because of its small size it is often called a Sparrow Hawk, but it seldom attacks sparrows. It is nine inches long and weighs four ounces, a little larger than a robin. Females, like most birds in the raptor group, are a little larger than the males. The males have blue-gray wing feathers, a white breast with black spots, a brown back with horizontal black stripes, and solid brown tail with a black tip.
The female has a cream colored breast with brown vertical stripes, a brown back and tail with horizontal stripes. Both sexes have two vertical black stripes on their face, one on each side of their eyes. When they fly their long blunted wings are swept back and they have shallow rapid wing beats.
Kestrels nest in cavities such as hollow trees, a hole in a building, and sometimes in the old nests of other birds. A major problem for these birds is the lack of places to nest and they have competition for nest sites with European Starlings- an alien species. In the 1980’s more than 750 nesting boxes were placed on the back of road signs along Interstate-35, seventy per cent of these boxes were used successfully by kestrels. This type of nesting box can be seen in several places in Dallas County such as Voas Nature Area and near the Washington School Building on County Road P-58. Another problem facing kestrels is the lack of hunting habitat. They hunt in grasslands, pastures, and abandoned farmsteads. They do very little hunting in fields with row crops or timberland. At this time of the year they feed mainly on large grasshoppers, and other insects. They eat a lot of mice and voles year round and they also feed on spiders, snakes, and lizards. Kestrels are frequently seen hovering like a small helicopter looking for prey in a road ditch and they also hunt by sitting on fence posts, electric wires, and tree branches searching the ground below for food.
In the 1990’s when there were two million acres of farm fields in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) the birds’ population increased greatly. However, in the last few years as CRP ground has been put into corn and bean fields, ornithologists are seeing a decrease in the kestrel population. But the birds are struggling to adapt to the changing environment; they are being seen more often in suburbs, golf courses, and city parks. These are areas where they would not normally live. Other threats to the American Kestrel are electrocution when they land on power poles and being poisoned by insecticides. Fifty years ago their population severely declined, along with other birds of prey, because of the insecticide D.D.T. When it was time to release the bird, Kay Neumann carefully handed the kestrel to eleven year old Dylan Steele of Woodward. He held it securely in his hands as the crowd counted to three and then he released it. The bird flew one circle above the group like it was getting its bearings and then it vanished from view as it flew over the trees. Everyone wished it well.