American kestrels were giving flying lessons to their young in my backyard - East Idaho News

American kestrels were giving flying lessons to their young in my backyard

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Hangry calls of a juvenile American kestrel came from a single tree at the back of my neighbor’s backyard. Both adults were in my large trees calling back to the youngster, begging it to come to them for its lunch. The kid left its perch and flew about 50 feet before landing on a shed. Eventually one of the parents took a rodent back to the nesting tree where at least two young had been hatched earlier this spring. The juvenile flew awkwardly back to the parent and fed on the hapless rodent.

This happened about two weeks ago as I had watched the pair of kestrels, often called “sparrow hawks,” protect the nest from Black-billed magpies, Red-tailed hawks and even a Merlin (another hawk). From across two backyards, I occasionally watched the parents bring in baby birds from other species, mostly newly hatched American robins and House finches, along with various rodents.

During the last few weeks, I have watched as the parents continue to force their kids to fly to other spots to get their food. As the youngsters have improved their flying skills, the parents have now started training them to hunt. It has become a family affair and has not come as a welcome event for the area robins. Each time I walk out of my house and hear the robins making a fuss, I know the kestrels are having a training session.

One of the parents will hover over a robin or its nest and when one of the juveniles starts to fly toward it, the parent will go into a dive toward the bird. It will fly past the robin as it takes off, trying to get the youngster to attempt an attack the robin.

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A juvenile kestrel having a steak dinner that an adult had caught and dropped for it. | Bill Schiess,

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

One of the juveniles captured the dropped rodent this week, flew to a fence, and began eating it. After it consumed about half of the bait, it dropped the rest of it on the ground and the other juvenile flew down, took the meal back to a board of the fence and finished eating the rodent.

Kestrels are North America’s smallest and most colorful falcon that eats far more large insects than they do other baby birds. This species is a cavity nester, but they do not build their own nests; they must steal one from another bird or animal. The nest this couple used this season was previously built and used by a pair of flickers.

They are a welcome addition to my backyard because plenty of large insects invade my garden and harass the berry-eating birds that like my strawberries and raspberries. They may perch for hours, surveying the ground and sky before locating what they prefer to eat and then attempt to catch that meal.

Even though the kids can now catch their own food, they are still begging from their parents and are very entertaining to watch. The shed in a neighbor’s backyard is next to my raspberries and has become a favorite perch for the kids. I hope they stay around to protect the ripening berries for me to enjoy!

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A top of a shed has become the favorite perching place for the 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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