We’ve been busy around here with our latest secret project: raising and training an American Kestrel! This was the first thing The Future Apprentice and I wanted to do after I became a general falconer, add a little kestrel to the team. We had to decide whether or not we would “imprint” an eyass bird (that means we would take the bird from the nest and raise it ourselves), or if we would trap a juvenile from the wild. I was fully intending on trapping a juvenile bird because most people I talked to warned that an imprint kestrel can be loud and obnoxious.
[Could this little thing really be obnoxious?]
I found a great resource in a Yahoo Group devoted to American Kestrels, however, and two or three of the posters in that group intrigued me. They had been flying imprint kestrels for years, and claimed that their birds were as quiet and well mannered as any juvenile trapped bird. There were two things you had to be obsessive about in order to achieve this- food association and socialization. Of the two, socialization was the “magic bean” in the equation while food association should always be a must for falconers. Kestrels are social animals, and falconers who fly wild caught birds will even say that a wild trapped kestrel almost seems like it imprints on its falconer. So you have to make sure you spend as much time with the bird as possible.
Since we homeschool our kids, and someone is almost always at the house, this is no problem. Then my nephew called me up with an opportunity to get a little baby bird from a nest. I got my permits in order with the state and pulled the trigger. We brought Stormfly home when she was just under 2 weeks old.
[A little “socializing” here]
The first few weeks were crazy, and a little messy too. We were so worried we might kill the little girl (as her feathers started showing up, we learned the sex). We had a little nest we made for her in our living room, and she lived there, watching our life go on all around her. At first she just laid around, then she started trying to use her legs, and finally she would have huge battles with the leaves and balls we’d put her in her nest. A baby kestrel is about as cute as anything you’ve ever seen!
[Here she is, with her little squirrel friend, and in my office]
The big day came when she made it out of her nest and began exploring. In order for her to develop properly, she needed to go through the same stages she would have in the wild. We began feeding her cut up little pieces of meat that she would ‘find’ in her nest. Then we began to leave mouse carcasses for her to tear up on her own, set on the lure that we would use when we started training. In the same way, she had to ‘branch’ out of the nest and begin exploring her environment, which also happened to be our living room and kitchen. Thankfully, my wife finds kestrels way cuter than Red Tails and would forgive this little bird just about anything!
[Bath time is ALWAYS a hit!]
We had an exciting couple weeks as Stormfly jumped off tables, and tried flying across the floor. She would attack any little thing she came across! We began to put food on her lure in different places where she would find it for herself. We never once in that first month or so, EVER, fed her from our hands.
[How’d you get there?]
Another training method is “tame hacking,” where you release the young bird in a safe place outside for several hours at a time to develop in flying and exploring. We did this on one Saturday, and it turned into a 2 day nightmare where we she ended up hacking for way longer than we wanted. Fortunately, she stayed right around our house and we got her back. The Future Apprentice spent a lot of time outside during that period!
We got her furniture on her, and she looked all cute as her feathers were finally coming all the way in. She was back to exploring the house. We would find grasshoppers outside and bring them into the house for her to hunt. It was a lot of fun!
[Bookshelves were her favorite napping place during this time of exploring]
[Just daydreaming about being a cowgirl. Note the shelf in the background. It has zero knick knacks on it. Yeah, we learned that lesson about baby birds flying around the hard way. ]
Once she was hard-penned, we began the job of weight management and training. I think we overfed her a little bit and she had quite a bit of weight to lose before she became really responsive to food. Over a couple weeks of calling her to the fist inside, we dialed her response weight into 128 g. Once we moved outside however, she got pretty jumpy and we found the sweet spot right around 125 grams.
We also built her a little perch shelf to put in our living room. Again, if you want a peaceful and quiet kestrel, she needs to be with you as much as she possibly can. There’s no putting her in a mews and ignoring her if you aren’t hunting! We take her with us everywhere we can. The only noise she makes is that she ‘greets’ us with her little trill when we approach her. Otherwise, she is sweetly silent.
[We’re getting ready to head out somewhere, and Stormfly has taken her position on the hat]
[Here’s the shelf perch I made for her. I’ll do another post later of exactly how we put it together]
Her first free flight was, in a word, perfect. She responded like a dream to the fist, every single time. We flew her all around our yard, and she even caught a caterpillar for herself. We’ve been flying her every day for a little bit now, and she’s so much fun. At this point we’re just having fun hunting the grasshoppers, cicadas, caterpillars, and mice in the fields behind our house, but eventually we will work on entering her on starlings and sparrows as well.
She’s been a great change of pace from the squirrel hunting with Big Turkey, and we’ve learned so much through this experience.