Guess Who’s Coming to Lunch, Kestrel Edition


Photo: Janet Rassweiler

My neighbor Janet had an astonishingly beautiful, if rather ferocious visitor for lunch yesterday.

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

She was working in her kitchen at midday, when she heard a strange repetitive banging sound coming from the living room. She moved to the doorway, and saw a bird on her air conditioner. This is nothing unusual in itself. Pigeons and mourning doves often perch there.

But this little bird was no dove.

photo 1

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

It was a tiny male hawk, or rather a falcon, no bigger than a blue jay, called the American Kestrel.

Kestrels are the smallest raptor in North America with a range from Mexico to Canada. Their populations are in decline in many parts of the continent due to habitat loss and pesticides that kill off the insects they feed upon. Yet the little raptors seem to be thriving in New York City.  Like other hawks and falcons that have adapted to urban life, they find that man-made structures serve their needs quite well. While their big cousins, the peregrine falcons, nest high on skyscrapers and bridges, the little kestrel prefers to raise its young in the broken cornices of old brownstones and mid-rise apartment buildings. Their prey includes insects, small mammals and birds, like the sparrow Janet’s visitor brought for lunch.

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

The banging Janet heard was the sparrow’s head flopping up and down on the metal air conditioner as the kestrel pulled with its beak while holding the body down with its feet. (To move more quickly through the slideshow below, hover over the image, then click on the arrows that appear.)

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When the bird had had enough, it flew off with the body in its talons, leaving behind only the beak and part of the head.

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

Photo: Janet Rassweiler

 I couldn’t tell if the brain had been eaten or not, although I rather guess it had, since brains are apparently chock full of nutrients. Perhaps the kestrel ate a quick blast of brain food before carrying off the rest of the sparrow to feed a nesting mate.

The abandoned head reminded me of another dramatic wildlife story that unfolded on my block. One day a few years ago, I noticed a fledgling sparrow hopping about inside the large planter of a nearby building. The little bird was clearly not yet able to fly, and was probably being fed by a parent hiding in a street tree. I made the decision not to intervene, since the planter seemed as safe a spot as any on a city street for a still earth-bound baby bird. Early the next morning, the decapitated dead body of the baby sparrow lay on the sidewalk. The head was nowhere to be found. (I wrote about the fledgling’s predicament, and my own, in Baby Birds and Animals: To Help or Not to Help.)

Had Janet not witnessed the kestrel eating the sparrow, she would be left puzzling over the mysterious appearance of a bird head on her air conditioner.

What a city we live in, my friends. What a city.

What a world.

All photos in this post courtesy of Janet Rassweiler.
Explore posts in the same categories: 2014, Birds, Hawks, In the City, Seasons, Spring

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15 Comments on “Guess Who’s Coming to Lunch, Kestrel Edition”

  1. you should email Dr. Robert DeCandido ( – he did a five year study of the American Kestrel – right here in NYC. He will be happy to send info…

  2. Andre Says:

    gotta love nature in the city. hopefully bald eagles will be next… hopefully not to the detriment of ospreys

  3. […] Guess Who’s Coming to Lunch, Kestrel Edition […]

  4. theresagreen Says:

    A bit gruesome, but what a privilege to be selected as a lunch companion. Perhaps it left the head as a ‘thank you’.

  5. awesome encounter…yes kestrels have the notch in their beak. There was a kestrel scrape on 108 and amsterdam ave…maybe back in use?

    • Thanks, Yojimbot! Haven’t spotted the kestrel scrape, but I will be looking closely now. Very exciting possibility. Why do they decapitate? To reduce weight load for carrying off prey? Do they ever eat the brains?

      • Decapitation because its a gift for his mate who is sitting in the nest. When he approaches the scrape with prey he will make a kee-keee-kee-kee sound, calling to her to come get it. Look it up on google and learn it…its the best way to find such a stealthy nest.

  6. Mr. Mantooth Says:

    this is fabulous

  7. Reblogged this on In Season and commented:
    This post on “Out Walking the Dog” of a Kestrel eating a meal atop an air conditioner in New York City really caught my attention. I fell in love with Kestrel when I was in elementary school and choose to to a report on the beautiful little birds.

  8. How lucky can a person get? That was just too cool.

  9. Charlotte Says:

    I wish i had read this AFTER breakfast, but nevertheless, a great post!

  10. p hoey Says:

    A beautiful bird, completely assured on its safe perch: urban survivor, unlike its prey. Thanks, Melissa.

  11. mthew Says:

    Falcons generally eat only the breast of their prey. 25 Kestrels nests were found in Manhattan in a survey done a few years ago, out of something like 75 in the whole city. No doubt an undercount, but either way, this makes them the most common raptor in the city. The grasslands at Floyd Bennett Field are right now saturated with them: 13 counted yesterday.

    • Thanks, Matthew. I just read that peregrines bite through the neck of the bird to kill it. Maybe something similar with the kestrel? How extraordinary that you saw 13 in one area yesterday. Do you think those are migrants or locals?

      • mthew Says:

        That wasn’t me unfortunately. Info from the bird lists.

        Peregrines have a special notch in their beak to snap through spinal cords/deliver coup de grace, but I’m not sure about Kestrels.

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