Kestrels

The house is silent on a hot and breezy evening. 7 p.m. and the sun beats on our front porch, the dog stretched full length and snoozing on the warm boards. He doesn’t seem to mind the heat, at least when he’s wet from his pool (and guarding the feeder from red squirrels).

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After a busy weekend, I am savoring the silence: just me, the wind in the trees, a goldfinch twittering. But what’s that? The bluebird on the lacrosse goal breaks the peace: predator at 1 o’clock. A kestrel has just touched down on the wires. Usually the birds scatter when predators show up (a northern harrier and a broad winged hawk have been regulars), but the bluebird doesn’t flinch for the kestrel. He holds his ground and chatters his warning. The kestrel, so far, has been more interested in mice and snakes than songbirds, despite its old nickname “sparrowhawk.”

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Kestrels are little falcons, the smallest of the genus– about half the size of their more famous peregrine cousins.  They hunt from perches and but also by hovering–kiting–over fields. In Maine we have kestrels, peregrines and a third falcon, the merlin.

The bluebirds should be grateful they need not contend with merlins here. They are bird specialists who zoom like fighter jets through the trees to take their prey.

The bluebird is not consoled by this and is relentless in its alarm, the brave little sentinel. But the kestrel is used to getting yelled at. Last night a robin perched on the wire and shrieked at him for at least a half hour. Getting yelled at by a bluebird is a little like being tickled.

Tonight, though, the kestrel stops my heart when it drops from the wire, swooping towards the lacrosse goal. Has the bluebird run out of luck –and him with a second brood in the nest box? Not this time. The kestrel is after an insect in the grass and returns to the wire to dine. I can only assume the bluebird is furious–its calls increase in speed and volume. Picking up on the bluebird’s distress, a scolding catbird joins in and there is no longer peace or silence in the kingdom. We are in full alarm.

The kestrel finishes its snack and decides to head home, down the hill to the old farm building where there is a convenient hole. Just one more thing that sets kestrels apart from other falcons. They live in open country, but are cavity nesters like the bluebirds. See, even though a kestrel could probably take a bluebird, they have more in common than they think.

Except it doesn’t work that way in the natural world. No one will be singing kumbaya and holding hands. Because if the kestrel were really desperate (and that day may come–there also are babies in the nest), there could be bluebird on the menu. And that is why the bluebird raises its alarm, bravely, foolishly holding its ground.

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