Faster than a speeding sparrow, a small rust-colored bird flies over your head and lands on a nearby fence post. Roughly the size of a blue jay with dark button eyes, polka-dot feathers and a bold stare, the bird looks cute. But when you notice it holding a freshly killed wren in its sharp toenails, you know you're face to face with a pint-size predator.
Spend some time in the open fields of the United States and you're sure to encounter an American kestrel, the smallest falcon in North America. With long pointed wings and a long tail, falcons are the "fighter jets" of the bird world. They specialize in hunting and catching other birds, a feat that requires speed and agility. Many falcons can fly up to 70 to 80 mph without difficulty. Peregrine falcons can even dive faster than 200 mph in pursuit of prey.
American kestrels are also built for speed. They may not break any records, but unlike larger falcons, kestrels have the ability to hover against the wind as they look for prey. With their sharp talons and pointed beak, they are perfectly adapted to hunting and catching small birds, small mammals and large insects.
American kestrels have excellent vision. Their eyes are enhanced by dark lines of feathers. Just like eye black worn by baseball and football players, these dark feathers absorb sunlight and keep glare from reflecting back into the kestrel's eyes.
Despite these amazing features, American kestrels are on the decline through much of North America. They prefer to live in open areas such as farm fields and prairies bordered by trees. As fields are replaced with housing developments, kestrels have fewer places to hunt and nest. They may be also negatively affected by pesticide use.
Across America, people are being encouraged to put up special nest boxes designed for American kestrels. Providing safe places to nest will go a long way for these tiny predators.
Peregrine falcons faced many similar issues as the American kestrel and were considered an endangered species. Thanks to human efforts, the peregrines are recovering and can now be seen nesting and hunting in many urban areas.
To get a sneak peek into the lives of wild falcons, check out the National Aviary's FalconCam. It is currently focused on a peregrine falcon nest on the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland. You can learn more about the history of the peregrines in Pittsburgh, stay up to date on the progress of the nest and get the latest news. Want more? On Saturday and Sunday, the National Aviary is hosting an event called "Falcons!" where guests can learn more about FalconCam, meet the falcons that live at the National Aviary, take part in lure-flying demonstrations, and learn about the art of falconry. For information and to access FalconCam, visit www.aviary.org.
-- By the National Aviary Education Team