Predatory Parrots Among Us

In modern times, those of us living in Tennessee think of parrots as exotic beasts of tropical lands.  We imagine them flying through jungles and dangling from vines feasting on exotic fruits.  But once upon a time, we had wild parrots here, too.

When the European settlers first arrived, the Carolina Parakeet was a common bird throughout eastern North America.  Unfortunately, these native parakeets proved to be fond of orchards.  So, the settlers were not fond of the parakeets, and the species was pushed to extinction by the early 20th Century.

But now, it turns out, we still have close relatives of the parrots living all across North America, and they are not vegetarians.

For hundreds of years, it was assumed that all birds of prey were closely related to each other.  Hawks, eagles, vultures, osprey and falcons were all grouped together in one big order based on their anatomy.

kestral webIn recent decades, scientists have been using DNA to look directly at how different birds are related to each other.  You have more DNA shared with your siblings, less with your cousins and even less with distant relatives and strangers.  The same thing works among animal species, allowing you to arrange them in a great big “family tree.”

Since the DNA studies began being used in birds, there have been many surprises. And one of the most recent shockers has turned our ideas about the birds of prey upside down:  Falcons are not closely related at all to hawks and eagles.

Rather than “first cousins,” falcons and hawks are more like “seventh cousins three times removed by marriage.”  The physical similarities between the falcons and the other birds of prey are because of their similar lifestyles, not because they are close relatives.

Two guys who both work as loggers might both have beards and wear flannel, but not because they are close kin.  It is because they both spend a lot of time outside in the cold woods.  It’s the same with falcons.  They have beaks and feet similar to those of hawks, because they both are predators, grasping prey with their talons and ripping meat with their bills.

It turns out, falcons are actually most closely related to parrots, not hawks.  So it seems that the logger’s real brother is a vegetarian, rodeo clown.  Our falcons are essentially predatory parrots using their robust beaks and claws for catching and devouring other birds instead of clinging to vines and gorging on fruit.

Interestingly, once we birders learned of this discovery, we looked at the falcons again and thought, “Well, of course, I can see that, it makes sense.”  Falcons have the long tails and swift agile flight of many parrots. And some of them are painted up in rather bold colors.  It was a bit of an “aha!” moment for all of us.

There are three species of falcons that occur regularly across North America, but only one of these is common in Tennessee:  the American Kestrel.  This flamboyantly colored, little predator is the smallest of the group, and the one that is most fond of suburbs and farmlands.

In the kestrel, as in most birds of prey, the males are smaller than the females.  A male falcon is called a “tercel,” from an old French word meaning “a third,” as in “one-third smaller.”  The name was also borrowed by Toyota for their smaller version of the Corolla in the 1980s and 1990s, by the way.

As our smallest bird of prey, the kestrel is smaller than a Mourning Dove, not much bigger than a robin.  They are often seen perched on power lines in open country, where they sit in an upright position with a distinctive sleek, large-headed silhouette.  The males, in addition to being smaller than the females, are more brightly colored. They sport a bright, rusty-red back and tail, contrasting with slate-blue wings.  The head is boldly patterned with a Fu Manchu moustache and Elvis-style sideburns.  The larger females are a bit duller, with brownish-red wings and more bars on their tales but with the same head pattern.

When perched on the power lines or atop a dead twig, both sexes routinely bob their tails up and down.  They sail out from their perch after prey and often hover like a drone scanning for a small mammal or large insect.  When they spot a potential catch, they fold their wings and drop rapidly down onto it.  A hunting kestrel can provide many hours of entertainment, as they are quite energetic and high-strung.

Kestrels are also known for their voices.  When excited or agitated (which is pretty often!), they will call out with a shrill, ringing “killy killy killy killy killy!” or “kitty kitty kitty kitty kitty!”

It’s worth noting, that if you have some older bird books, from before the 1970s, you might not find an “American Kestrel” in there.  Before then, the species was known as the “Sparrow Hawk.”  Its larger cousins were called the “Pigeon Hawk” (now the Merlin) and “Duck Hawk” (now the Peregrine Falcon).  The older names reflected the species’ different uses in the sport of falconry.  Most birders eagerly embraced the new names when they were made official, as they have a more romantic feel in keeping with the personalities of these charismatic fast-flying predators.

The American Kestrel is widespread, entertaining and attractive and is a favorite of many hard-core birders as well as casual birdwatchers.  In the Middle Tennessee countryside, there is often one nearby.  So keep a look out as you travel the highways and backroads.

Bill Pulliam

About Bill Pulliam

Bill Pulliam got started in birdwatching by his junior high science teacher in 1974, and has been an avid birder ever since in 48 U.S. states and 7 foreign countries. He is currently the Tennessee editor for eBird, an online project that compiles millions of observations from tens of thousands of birders around the world.

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