COUNTRY NOTEBOOK: M. Krishnan: THE MOST STRIKING OF OUR PREDATORS: The Sunday Statesman: 13 March 2016
"THE KESTREL is, I think, the prettiest of our Falcons. This is very much a question of personal opinion, and the nice distinction between prettiness, on the one hand, and beauty or handsomeness on the other. We have smaller Falcons, more powerfully and daintily put together, and many whose flight is far more impressive in its dash and abandon, but I still think the Kestrel, sitting pretty on a perch or hovering and sailing in the air, the prettiest of our birds of prey.
Much of the charm depends on its colouring. All falcons have the long, pointed, graceful wings of kestrel, and many have tails as full and long, but they usually run to slatey greys and somber browns, heavy moustachial stripes and highly predatory looks. The brick-red back and buff breast of the kestrel, mottled with dark brown spearhead markings, and its touches of grey and blackish flights have a complementary effect, unusual in the plumage of a predator. Looking at the bird, one feels somehow that it is no implacable killer -- and it isn't.
The English alias for the bird, windhover, so little heard in India, describes its way of life. The kestrel's mode of hunting is to go sailing in circles, about 100 feet above the ground, flapping its long wings occasionally, and fanning and closing its full tail to suit the wind. It scrutinises the scrub below for large insects, little reptiles and the like and when it sees a suspicious movement below, it stops still, threshing the air with quick, small wing-beats, much in the manner of a swimmer treading water, but faster. It often drops much lower, to sight its quarry the better, and many drop again till it is hovering in the air barely 15 feet above the ground. Then, if it sees its prey clearly, it pounces.
Very different is the kestrel's hunting from that of other falcons, and they have said that the movement seems more or less limited to wingtips; the primaries alone appear to move rapidly up and down, and not the whole wing as in a Pied Kingfisher hanging over the water and searching for fish. No doubt that the movement does seem limited to the wingtips, but that is because the observer is well below the bird and so in that foreshortened view can take note only of quite obvious movements.
Recently I had the opportunity to watch a kestrel hovering from close quarters, and when I was almost on a level with the bird I noticed that the entire wing moved, I was on the terrace of a tall building, and the falcon was almost level with the parapet, and only 20 feet away from me. Such an opportunity rarely comes one's way, and I used it to the full, watching each tremor of the wing as narrowly as I could. The wings are moved up and down, not with the rowing, rotary action of flight, but still with some measure of lateral displacement besides the up-and-down motion; the whole wing is moved, but since the wing-beats are small, it is the flexible pinions that show the greatest amount of movement -- it is the principle of the lever.
GM Henry describes another method of hanging in the air adopted by the bird, and the description is so accurate that it is worth quoting. He says, "Where a gale blows up a hillside the bird does not need to fan its wings, or spread its tail, but remains poised for long periods 'with no visible means of support' -- a most fascinating sight." I think the quotation within the quotation is from "Eha", writing of Harriers, but I am unable to verify this now. There is one thing I should like to add to Henry's account of this spectacle: it is not only when there is a gale against a hillside that the Kestrel can perform this feat; I have seen it suspended motionless in the air when there was a strong wind in the Madras area, far from hills; a strong level breeze is, however, necessary.
Do Kestrels also hunt from their perch, as the White-eyed Buzzard does? I think they do. As everyone knows, they are fond of sitting atop an elevated perch, such as a post or the leafless, dead limb of a tree. I have seen them drop from their perch, at such times, to the ground -- once I actually saw a Kestrel take some insect in this manner, which it ate on the ground before flying up to its perch again."
- M. Krishnan
This was published on 7 January 1962 in The Sunday Statesman
# A nice sketch of the bird perched on a leafless branch has not been reproduced here.