One of the very special perks of volunteering at Liberty Wildlife is the chance to release an animal back to the wild. This time of year many orphans that were brought in as helpless babies become ready to go out on their own.
Orphaned nestlings brought to Liberty are placed with surrogate parents, non-releasable birds that feed and care for dozens of youngsters of their species. Liberty staff keeps a close eye on the young birds’ progress. When fully feathered, the fledglings are moved into flight cages with others of their kind, where they practice flying and learn to hunt on their own.
Yesterday, when my volunteer shift wrapped up Jan asked if I’d like to release a couple of kestrels. Of course! The North American kestrel is the smallest of the falcon family. About the size of a mourning dove, the kestrel is a stunningly beautiful bird of prey.
At South Mountain where I planned to release the birds, I peeked into the cardboard box. Kestrels are one of the few birds of prey that exhibit dimorphism, or different colored plumage for males and females. A male and a female glared up at me, fiesty.
The male stood boldly in the center of the box, chestnut feathers contrasting smartly with blue grey wings. His two dark eye stripes were like a warrior’s mask. The female huddled in the corner, showing the dark bars on her rust colored wings and back.
I fully opened the box and the male lifted out like he’d been pulled on a string. He flew to a nearby boulder and perched, screaming keeer-keeer. I jiggled the box a little and the female made for the sky, flying in a big arc. Her long, narrow wings pumped steadily, flashing mahogany. She soon disappeared from view.
The male stayed perched for a bit. He ruffled his feathers and flicked his tail up and down. He looked all around. If he was an orphan, this might be his first view of wide open sky and an expanse of rocks and mountain.
Perhaps he’d been brought to Liberty with an injury. If so, he may have spent weeks in the hospital healing and regaining strength. In any case, it was a momentous occasion.
Kestrels typically hunt in late afternoon or morning in the summer, avoiding the midday heat. They mostly prey on insects, but also eat lizards, rodents and small birds.
Pretty soon a couple of mockingbirds, perhaps with young in a nest nearby, decided they didn’t like this kestrel in their territory. Squawking indignantly they dove repeatedly at the stranger. The kestrel simply spread his wings and flew off to freedom.