Nature Watch: Time for juncos, kestrels
Q: I have a few juncos all winter and a few more during the summer -- 10 or so -- but I'm being invaded now. A group of 20 to 30 has been here for a couple of days. Are they just passing through on their way north?
As a P.S., he adds, The kestrels are back perching on the wires along 8A from the Route 9 intersection at least as far as Cheshire Road, wherever there's a field. -- Paul, Windsor
A:In your case the juncos -- those small gray above, white below birds with white outer tail feathers -- are now in migration. Most will be heading north, while some will be staying to nest in Windsor and taking a short flight to Washington, Becket and Peru with others flying across the valley to the higher reaches and summit of Mt. Greylock. They will mostly nest on or near the ground in spruce and fir forests, less frequently in pine, and deciduous forests. Juncos don't mind elevation and have been found as high as 11,000 feet. While visiting friends in Peru a few years back, we nearly stepped on a junco nest on the edge of the driveway close to their home's entrance. The nest was on a small slope, less in this case, than half a foot, of rocks and tree roots. Some juncos are even known to nest under cabins, on porch railings and, like house finches, on window sills or light fixtures (rarely, I assume). I most often discover nests while walking along the roads and paths near the summit of Greylock and by examining the roots of fallen trees. Around the nest, they are far less tolerant of intruders, and not wanting to upset them, I don't hesitate, but continue on my way. They have far less fear for us than most birds, and being among the most numerous birds in North America, get away with it, although they do show a small decline in numbers. As anyone who feeds birds knows, these "snowbirds" are primarily ground feeding seed eaters, preferring millet. Soon, as breeding gets underway, their diet will switch to insects.
As for kestrels, formerly called sparrow hawks -- although they rarely eat sparrows -- they are uncommon birds here now. They are our smallest falcon (hawk) and have been declining in much of their range, except central U.S. Housing shortage, pesticides and decline in once abundant food sources, and most importantly, the loss of open fields and farmland throughout much of the Northeast contribute to this decline.
Like bluebirds, tree swallows and a few other bird species, they are cavity nesters, and must rely on hollow trees, vacated woodpecker holes, nesting boxes and rarely, rock crevices. You can help this species by providing nest boxes, either purchased or make it yourself. For instructions, go to www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/kestrel/nestbox
Besides the above mentioned reasons for this little falcon's decline, its habit of perching in the open as it searches for food, sometimes can make it become food itself, for other, larger hawks, including goshawk, red-tailed hawk, Cooper's and sometimes owls and crows. If you are an open-land owner, keep it open and allow a few dead trees to stand.
The kestrel isn't much larger than a mourning dove, but carries an arsenal of extremely sharp talons and beak. (I can attest to the sharpness of talons when I was raising one -- under permit -- in the early 1960s. It flew from the clothesline pole and perched momentarily on the top of my head rather than my gloved hand.)
Questions and comments for Thom Smith: email Naturewatch@live.com