We Wish You a Merry Kestrel

There is a cornfield across from my house along with a brushy ditch lining the road. A lone male Kestrel has been keeping watch over a portion of this ditch from the lofty perch of a power line. There he sits patiently scanning the ground below for lunch in the form of a skittering meadow mouse. Whenever I approach the road with camera in hand – pretending to cross the road to get the mail – he takes flight.  They are nervous little falcons and quite intolerant.

Their nervous character is evident even from a great distance due to their habit of constantly twitching their tail. This, combined with the standard raptor trait of head bobbing, creates a stationary bird in constant motion. Before I elaborate into my usual departure from fact, I’d like to point out the features that mark this high wire bird as a male. The bright colors, especially the rich pale blue wing coverts and rusty head patch, along with a solid brick-red tail are marks of masculinity. Females lack these features and have heavily barred tails. Male birds are smaller than females, but this is not something easily perceived from a distance.

As members of the Falcon family they have a series of three black bars marking the face – the last set being reduced to a pair of dots. These function as eye spots. A Kestrel looking away appears to be looking back at any potential predator with stony black eyes (see below). These are small birds, little bigger than a robin, and they are predated upon as equally as they predate upon others.

Soaking as we are in sea of Christmas songs and gag-prompting commercials on this week previous to Christmas, my Kestrel thoughts are naturally flavored with a seasonal salt. Could it be true that our little predator is actually a hummingbird? By this I am wondering if he is quietly singing to himself and keeping beat with his tail and head. Instead of “Angels We Have Heard on High” he might be joyfully declaring from his wire perch:

“Kestrels we have heard on high,

sweetly singing o’er the plains,

and the meadows in reply,

echoing their joyous strain:

Kill-Killey  Kill-Killey, Kill-Killey Kill-le-ah

In excelsis Falco…etc.”

 There are no bells upon his bobbing tail, but would it take that much imagination to picture him as “singing a slaying song tonight” as in “Meadow Mice, Meadow Mice, Mousing all the way…”? No, you see, it wouldn’t. In fact, I wonder if you might be cooking up another verse at this very minute. I suspect that male Kestrels sing with a tenor voice, by the way, so when performing these numbers in private you’d better keep that in mind. It helps to eat a rodent just before singing (do not – I repeat – do not heat up your chosen rodent in the microwave before consuming.)

As many of the best carols are ancient in origin they make use of archaic language. It is fitting, since Kestrels have been around for a very long time, to make use of their older name of “Sparrow Hawk.” This also gives us an opportunity to insert it into a three-syllable slot, such as “God Rest Ye Merry Sparrow Hawks.”  We’ll end our little foray into Christmas insanity with this piece and wish you a safe ride home. Remember to keep your eye on the road but don’t pass up the opportunity to wave to my little falcon up on the power line.

“God rest ye merry Sparrow Hawks,

let nothing you dismay,

for mice will be your savior

before the close of day.

To save yourself from hunger’s gnaw,

You’ll pounce on them and prey,

O tidings of predator and prey, pred’tor and prey

O tidings of predator and prey.”

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