Most machines that take to the skies seem to borrow their names from raptors or birds of prey – hawk, harrier and kestrel to name a few – perhaps to emphasise the similarities: swift, swooping, strong and powerful. For instance, the AV-30 Light Assault VTOL, a combat vehicle used by the United Nations Space Command, is commonly referred to as Kestrel. There’s another reason too. Just like the bird kestrel, the vehicle can hover above the ground, though in the case of the former it is nature’s ingenuity at play. Let’s take a peek into the fascinating world of kestrels, a member of the falcon family.
Distributed throughout Asia, Europe and Africa, kestrels prefer plains, open fields, shrublands and avoid dense forests, vast treeless wetlands and mountains. Seen throughout the year, they are a familiar sight hovering over a motorway or main road, sometimes perched on a high tree branch or on a telephone post or wire on the lookout for prey. Perhaps, what they are best known for is that they can hover effortlessly for long periods of time by rapidly beating their wings while facing the headwind and matching the air speed precisely.
During birdwatching trips, it is a delight to catch sight of the common kestrel, especially when it is hovering in stationary air.
During one such trip in the outskirts of my town Krishnaraja Nagar in Karnataka, in early winter, I was fortunate to witness a pair of kestrels flying over the slopes as low as 10 metres from the ground.
The kestrels flew searching for food over the undulations appearing now and then in the grassland habitat, diving over the ground and catching small grasshoppers, which were abundant in the ground, flying back and perching themselves on the banyan tree and sometimes the coconut tree or even the electric pole. Their plumage is a reddish shade of brown with black spots on the upper side.
Later I could identify one of them as male and the other a female. The female is slightly larger than the male. At times they hovered over a location for a long time, only to move 10 metres away and hover again.
Hovering is such a splendid sight and the bird appears to be stationary in the sky for several minutes and we feel as if its spread wings and tail are vibrating at a high speed. All we can see is feathers raising and lowering and the sunlight coming through its wings and tail.
Before I left, the kestrel came close and perched on an electric wire surveying the place for a long time.
Later it found some movement at a distance, near a stream, and flew and pounced on something and sat on the ground.
Through my binoculars, I saw that it had caught a reptile which then had been some 100 metres away in the thick grass. That was quite amazing! They have very sharp eyesight and the poor reptile had no escape.
In addition to having exceptionally good eyesight, kestrels can also see ultra-violet light. This is useful in locating field mice because they leave a trail of urine wherever they go and the urine glows in ultra-violet light.
These small birds of prey are considered a farmer’s friend as they help prevent growth of insects and rodent population.
Kestrels in our region seldom come to the town and usually confine themselves to the town outskirts. Also, their physical appearance is such that they can be confused with the shikras or the red-necked falcons.
While hovering in the far distance, they can be confused with other hovering birds such as the black-winged kite, short-toed snake eagle and the red necked falcon.
I consider myself very fortunate to have sighted all these birds, during birding trips over a period of years, with the addition of terns and pied kingfishers, which hover over water.
Quick facts on this amazing bird
■ Common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
■ It is a bird of prey
■ Family: falcondae
■ Length: up to 15 inches
■ Wing span long wings, up to 32 inches
■ Weight: 180 gm, females are larger than the male
■ Food: insects, winged termites, small birds, lizards, mice, frog
■ Eggs: 3-6 eggs
■ Call: loud shrill ‘kee-kee-kee’