The Common Kestrel

By Mr. Richard Hoath

v7-3

There are no eagles on the New Campus, though the Steppe Eagle and Lesser Spotted Eagle could, along with other far rarer species, be soaring over this spring on their way from sub-Saharan wintering grounds. But we do have here in New Cairo their diminutive cousin, the Kestrel. This is related to, but different from the more boldly patterned American kestrel of the New World. The Kestrel Falco tinnunculus, also known as the Common or Rock Kestrel, is a small falcon. As is usual amongst the birds of prey, the female is larger than the male, up to 37cm in length.

       This size difference, termed sexual dimorphism, and common in the natural world, means that the sexes can exploit different food resources, the larger female, in this case, tackling larger prey that the male may not be able to handle. It is, courtesy of evolution, an eminently sensible arrangement. The female is warm brown above with a black spotted mantle, streaked below and with a grey rump. The male, smaller, is similarly patterned but has a grey head and with a distinct moustachial stripe. The claws in both are black an important feature as will become clear. Also listen out for its call, a raucous and utterly unmusical kee-kee-kee.

Kestrels are predators preying largely on small mammals but also reptiles and large insects. With predictable reports of mice here it should be welcomed. I have seen a Kestrel take a bird only once, a Goldfinch just north of Saqarra. And it is the method of hunting that makes the Kestrel so distinctive. It hovers, seemingly motionless in the air before diving down on the victim. But it is not true hovering flight. That is the mastery of the New World hummingbirds and our own Pied Kingfisher, the bird in The Guinness Book of Animal Records as the largest species capable of true hovering flight. What the Kestrel does is orientate itself with the presiding breeze and fly into it with just enough force to make it static. This mode of hunting has perhaps been described best, not by scientists but by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in The Windhover.

Other falcons are far remoter possibilities. The Lanner Falco biarmicus is a much larger raptor recorded from Wadi Degla to the south and throughout the Eastern Desert. It is darker with pale cheeks and rufous nape. As Spring approaches the Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni will be passing through Egypt on its way to European breeding grounds. The male is, to my mind, the most elegant bird of prey, similar to the male Kestrel but with an unspotted mantle and plain dove grey head. The female is almost indistinguishable from the female Kestrel but has white as opposed to black claws. It is more gregarious than the Kestrel and one of my favourite birding memories from Egypt is coming across a flock of these raptors on the Ain Suhkna road, just a few kilometers from our New Campus, and close enough to get those diagnostic claws.

 

References:

Carwardine, Mark. The Guinness Book of Animal Records Enfield: Guinness, 1995

Gardner, W. H. ed. Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978

Mullarney, Killian et al. Bird Guide London: Collins, 1999

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