My Friend Flugel: An Ode to an American Kestrel

A conversation with a fellow raptor fan and Kevin's recent entry pertaining to the injured bald eagle congealed and triggered a few of my geriatric neurons, prompting the following nostalgic reverie about a former pet: an American kestrel.

I think I have mentioned that I grew up on a farm in east central Illinois, not far from Champaign-Urbana. Our yard consisted of an acre of land with a variety of mature trees - sugar, Norway and silver maples, American basswood, shingle oak, flowering crab apples, sweetgum and a few specimen trees - plus open areas where we set up the croquet set, the site of the infamous Attack of the Wolf Spider. A large grove (~ 2 acres) of black walnut trees abutted the western boundary of the yard. Southwest of the house was an orchard of apples and cherry trees. A pasture with two old barns lay to the east/southeast and an extensive vegetable garden was located immediately south of the house and bordered in part by a large aluminum sided building which housed my father's combines, tractors, trucks and the family car. All that was surrounded by corn and soybean fields on flat-as-a-pancake topography.

Our yard, the walnut grove, and the pastures and barns served as a fairly rich habitat for many birds, including crows and raptors. Red-tailed hawks were the most predominant raptor species on our farm. I imitated their whistle to get our chickens to drop down from the Golden Delicious apple tree in their yard and go into the hen house for the night. Screech owls were common, too. I loved hearing them at night.

One spring afternoon in 1967 or thereabouts, my mother noticed a commotion by the old garage - a separate small building with a dirt floor which we no longer used for the car. Our troop (pride?) of farm cats was entranced with something inside, but the cats were also reluctant to venture too close to whatever it was. So she went out to investigate, expecting to see a king snake since the reptiles liked the cool dirt floor during warm weather. Instead, she found a young sparrow hawk a.k.a. American kestrel. It had apparently swooped out of its nest in the big silver maple at the corner of the yard,but could not yet fly. I was in school (13 years old, I think) when this happened so I don't recall how she managed to get the little falcon in our old bird cage which once housed a parakeet, but she did it. When I got home, there was the falcon in our dining room!

Of course, I was entranced. The slate-gray feathers on his wings and the bar across his tail feathers identified the little falcon as a male. He loved raw chicken livers which he happily accepted from me. He was very calm and didn't freak out at all. My brother, when he was home that weekend (in grad school at that time), quickly constructed a large cage with a wood frame and enclosed with chicken wire. We moved the bird into that so he could be in a larger space outside but protected from the cats, especially the feral tom.

We named him Flugel (German for "wing" or "flight," I believe; that should be a "u" with an umlaut, but I've never been successful using the appropriate HTML on Movable Type). Out of a succession of from-the-wild-pets (at various times, I had two raccoons, a fox squirrel, a cottontail rabbit, and a crow as temporary pets), he was hands-down the coolest. He became very tame and learned quickly to "step up" on our hands. Once it was apparent that he could fly, he moved out of the cage and we gave him his freedom to come and go, but he remained semi-domesticated until he departed that autumn.

Flugel was a real "people bird." As noted in the Wikipedia entry on the American kestrel, these birds are popular for new falconers since they are easily tamed. That certainly proved to be the case for Flugel. As soon as I stepped outside, he plummeted from the top of the big maple near our back porch and would alight on my hand. I encouraged this by rewarding him with his very favorite treat - the aforementioned raw chicken liver. My father welded a high perch for him which we placed near our vegetable garden. Flugel dove to his perch whenever he saw us outside. He also was savvy about the cats. Even with the availability of chicken liver, he learned to hunt. He hovered like a feathered helicopter, looking for bugs and such in the grass. He caught monstrous grasshoppers and munched away on them while on his perch.

He had a thing for one of my friends or at least her hair. Becky had long bronzy-brown hair which she kept pulled back in a ponytail. Whenever she visited, Flugel swooped down and landed on her head. Of course, this freaked her out. I expect those little falcon talons didn't feel too good as they dug into her scalp. To dissuade the bird from landing on my friend's head, I had to come out pre-armed with chicken liver in hopes of luring him away. Sometimes that worked.

When fall rolled around that year, Flugel took off (American kestrels are migratory). However, the next spring, he came back with a mate. Although he no longer landed on our hands or came down to his perch, we knew it was him since he positioned himself in that big silver maple and called out "Feed me, feed me!" in kestrelese when he saw us. He and his mate returned for two or three years after that then no more. Presumably he met his demise or found another territory.

I had always liked hawks and owls as a kid - and still do - but Flugel really won my heart. Here's a photo of him. This is a digitally enhanced image of a very faded and out-of-focus original. I probably took the picture with a basic little Kodak camera since my father was none too keen on my using his monster of a Canon. Many thanks to ST, fellow raptor enthusiast and friend of a beautiful Harris hawk, for tarting up the photo of Flugel.


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