American Kestrels Taught Their Young Flying Lessons In My Yard

The anguished cries of a juvenile American Kestrel came from a single tree in the back of my neighbor’s yard. The two adults were in my big trees, calling the youngster back, begging him to come to them for his lunch. The child left his perch and flew about 50 feet before landing on a shed. Eventually, one of the parents led a rodent back to the nesting tree where at least two young had hatched earlier this spring. The juvenile flew clumsily towards the parent and fed on the unfortunate rodent.

This happened about two weeks ago when I observed the pair of kestrels, often referred to as “sparrowhawks”, protecting the nest from black-billed magpies, red-tailed hawks and even a merlin (a another falcon). Across two backyards, I have occasionally observed the parents bringing in nestlings of other species, mostly newly hatched American Robins and House Finches, as well as various rodents.

Over the past few weeks, I have seen parents continue to force their children to fly to other places to get their food. As the young have improved their flying skills, parents have now started training them to hunt. It has become a family affair and has not become a welcome event for the robins in the area. Every time I step out of my house and hear the blackbirds fussing, I know the kestrels are having a workout.

One of the parents will hover above a robin or its nest and when one of the juveniles begins to fly towards it, the parent will dive towards the bird. It will hover over the robin as it takes off, trying to get the youngster to attempt to attack the robin.

A juvenile kestrel eating a steak that an adult had grabbed and dropped. | Bill Schiess,

Another game parents will play in practice is to pick up a harvested rodent, fly high in the air, and drop the bait. As the rodent falls, the other parent yanks it out of the air or drops it to the ground, picks it up and picks it up about 50 feet in the air and drops it again.

One of the juveniles captured the fallen rodent this week, flew to a fence and started eating it. After consuming about half of the bait, it dropped the rest on the ground, and the other juvenile flew out, brought the meal back to a board in the fence, and finished eating the rodent.

Kestrels are the smallest and most colorful falcons in North America. They eat many more large insects than other chicks. This species nests in cavities, but it does not build its own nests; they must steal one from another bird or animal. The nest this couple used this season was already built and used by a pair of twinkles.

They are a welcome addition to my garden as many large insects invade my garden and harass the berry-eating birds that love my strawberries and raspberries. They can roost for hours, surveying the ground and sky before locating what they prefer to eat and then attempting to catch that meal.

Even though the kids can now grab their own food, they still beg from their parents and are great fun to watch. A neighbour’s yard shed is next to my raspberries and has become the kids’ favorite perch. I hope they stay to protect the ripening berries for me to enjoy!

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The top of a shed has become the favorite haunt of juvenile kestrels. | Bill Schiess,

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A young kestrel tries to eat and perch at the same time. | Bill Schiess,

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An adult American Kestrel. | Bill Schiess,
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