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The thing is, if you're a falcon, you're a falcon from day one.  It doesn't matter how big or how small you are, or if you're covered with soft white fluff.  You're a falcon, and you've got an image to maintain.

American Kestrel, approx. ten days old  (slightly bigger version)

Welcome to Dawn Chorus in its new Sunday timeslot....

I'm a bit of a bio-groupie.  When I was younger, I had no idea how cool biology could be - I studied other things, got an office job, got married and settled in to domestic bliss with hubby and parrots.  In my mid-thirties, I started volunteering as a raptor bander and a whole new world opened up.  It was incredible - a never-ending learning experience, a chance to see things that not many people see with their own eyes.  But at that point in life, it was too late for a career switch - couldn't go back to school to get into a profession that would mean spending long stretches of time away from home and taking a 60% pay cut in the process, at least not if I wanted to stay married.

This is where it all begins.  (American Kestrel egg)

Fortunately, there other options for scratching that itch.  There's citizen science like Christmas Counts and Project Feederwatch, there's Earthwatch, and there's the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory.  My 17th season of hawk banding is about to begin, and over the previous 16 years I've gotten to know a lot of people who worked on many different non-GGRO research projects.  I've been able to tag along on several, sometimes just as a "tourist", but sometimes as a spare pair of hands (or an extra set of eyes).  One of those opportunities came up this summer, with a former intern who is now studying American Kestrels.

I may be small, but I'm still going to defend my little brothers and sisters.

She is looking at kestrel plumage (plumage!!), especially the male's tails.  The patterns on those tails are highly variable, and might be used to signal each other - maybe as individual identification, maybe as an indicator of breeding fitness, maybe something else, maybe a combination.  She works in two study areas, a couple hundred miles apart, and the studies include a number of elements - monitoring the populations in each location, setting out nest boxes, banding nestlings (and adults if possible), collecting genetic samples when possible and documenting plumage patterns in the tails of males (adults and young).  I was able to join her on two occasions for checking nest boxes and attempting to band adults.

It's always nice to open a nest box and see that it's in use...

She'd installed a number of boxes at both sites before the breeding season got underway.  This was good kestrel habitat, and there was no guarantee they'd be used - after all, one aspect of good habitat is that there are already good nest sites.  And one thing that banding teaches you - what looks great to a human may not look nearly so interesting to a bird.  But she did well - at the site I visited, at least five of the nest boxes held kestrels or kestrel eggs.  Three (?) others were unoccupied - and one had some unanticipated tenants.

... even when the occupants aren't who you expected (Western Bluebird nestling)

The kestrels at this site were at completely different stages of development when I made my first visit, in mid-June.  My friend had already banded the young birds at two nests and one of those nests was due to fledge the first birds within a day or two; two other nests held birds still too young for banding (some just 2-3 days old) and the female at the fifth nest had just laid her fourth (and final) egg - hatching was still a month away.  We checked all the boxes, taking great care not to startle the older nestlings, lest they fledge prematurely.  We had hoped that we might find the incubating female in the box so that she could be banded, but she was very wary and flew away while we were still quite a distance from the nest.  We left quickly so she could get back to brooding.

A little bird looks at big world that she'll soon experience.  (slightly larger version)

Kestrels usually lay clutches of 3-5 eggs, and begin incubating seriously with the third egg (this allows the eggs to develop and hatch closer in time to each other).  Incubation is roughly 30 days, and then it's another 28-30 days for the young birds to grow and fledge.  At the time they leave the nest, the flight feathers still have a few more days of growing to do, so their wings are more rounded than the sharp, tapered shape of fully grown falcon wings.

This female kestrel is just over three weeks old.  Within days, the fluff on her head will disappear under "real" feathers and her wing feathers will fill in.

The only time in a bird's life that all its feathers will be growing at the same rate, at the same time is when its first plumage comes in.  Knowing this, and knowing some patterns that can show up as a result (in fault bars) helps age birds more accurately in the field.  For a molt geek like me, seeing this initial feather growth is pretty cool.

Female kestrel nestling's tail (above) and wing (below) showing feathers emerging from their sheathes

In between my first and second trips, the two oldest nests had fledged, the younger two nests had been banded (and one of those nests fledged just a few days before my visit) and the final nest was on the verge of hatching.  We spent most of the second trip trying to band the adults, with no luck, and finished the day by checking in on the recently-banded and soon-to-fledge youngsters at one box, big sister and little brother.  Sister was feisty and we had to be very careful not to let her jump out.  Little brother was full of kestrel attitude, and just waiting til he had the wingpower to show the world his stuff.

American Kestrel (by Walter Kitundu - used with permission)

Nest Sunday, BirderWitch will be hosting with a piece on urban redtails.

Originally posted to lineatus on Sun Jul 19, 2009 at 06:02 AM PDT.

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