The Curious Tale of the Clever Kestrel

Don’t you just love a mystery!  You know where all the pieces sort of come together and  then.  There is always one more thing to learn.
Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, the birds will come up with a new story.

If like me you watch closely then its likely you’ll see something that makes you say, “Well, I’ve never seen that before!”

Such was a sunny morning on Friday.

We were on the Beach Road a the Western Treatment Plant and about halfway along between 29 Mile and the Beach Road boat ramp. Near a crossroad marked on some maps as “Chirnside Road”.

The paddocks here have been growing maize for cattle feed and have recently been harvested.  This off course means the stubble is still in the field and a good chance for the average bright minded Kite, Kestrel, Falcon, Raven, Magpie, Goshawk and others to take advantage of any mice or other tucker, (think rabbits for the big birds), that might be out in the open area.

For the part of the mice, the harvest has obviously left much corn and seed among the stubble.  So with the population being diminished by the birds and plenty of food available for the next generation, the fecundity of the females comes to the rescue and a small explosion of the population erupts.

Which brings more Kites, Kestrels, etc into the area. So to your average alert photographer. (Well at least us, so ignore the alert part.

On just about every vantage point the big birds sit, and wait, and then fight and argue over a single feed.   In the air, the Kestrels and Black-shouldered Kites are hard at work tracking the mouse spoor with their ‘UV googles” or whatever the bird equivalent is.

The Black-shouldered Kites in view of the abundance of food are already planning their own expansion of the species. And several are either well advanced in nest construction or perhaps even at work on hatching.   The Kestrels, are simply interested in stocking up on body weight for the long nesting/hatching season later in the year.
So enter, on stage right, our Kestrel.

We had been parked hard up against the fence-line, 1. To keep us clear of the sometimes busy road, and 2. to keep us clear of the sometimes very busy road.

We had to watch as the birds hunted just out of camera range. Swinging across occasionally, but for the most part the far side of the paddock obviously offered the best hunting.

We watched as a female Kestrel, with all the gliding hunting skill of her species sat motionless in the light breeze.  I remembered my early youth and watching for hours these beautiful birds as they worked their way around the edges of wheat paddocks.  In those days they were it seems to me now, in large numbers.

She caught a mouse. Swung over the paddock, not to the busy side, too dangerous to run the gauntlet of Flacons, Black, Whistling Kites and Swamp Harriers and scooted low down toward the fence line near us. Perhaps she had intended the post near the car, it certainly seemed that way from her flight path, but at the last moment, she swung right and landed about two posts down from us.  Cameras out, insert shutter noises here.

After checking out all was clear she mantled down (is down redundant there?), over the mouse and sat still for several minutes.  We waited.  Then for what seemed no good reason, she picked up the mouse, dropped from the fence and swished across the road to the far side fence post.  I had to concede she might not have liked our presence, but we’d made no move on her position so that seemed unlikely.   She sat, and then again mantled (see hedging my bets left off, down).

A few minutes later she stood, and dropped of the fence onto the grass verge and into some muddy area where the cattle had been standing, leaving hoof print holes in the mud, among the grasses.  Then she hopped about, as you would with a mouse in one claw, and then seemed to lose the mouse. At first I thought it must have still been alive and had scampered on her.  Then a few pecks in the grass, and she stood silent for a minute or more.   By now it was obvious she no longer had the mouse.  Gone!

Several more hops in the grass and she flew to the nearest fence post.  Sat, and preened a bit, then in an obvious move, took to the air and with a short look back, was gone back to hunting.

Fascinated, I had to go and have a look where she had landed.  And after a brief look about, there was the mouse. Tucked up tight in one of the deep hoof marks.   She had deliberately placed it so that the overhang of the edge of the hoof mark would cover the mouse from most prying eyes, (think kite, falcon, magpie, raven -competition).

Of course the why and the what are questions that remain unanswered.   Perhaps she was setting aside a snack for later if the hunting quietened down. She had made no attempt to maul the mouse at all.  One thing that I think is like the ‘mapping’ I’ve been talking about with the light Falcon, is she took sometime to work out where to put the mouse and then some time to reexamine the area from the fence and then again to fly over and get a good idea of the location. I know, I might be reading in my answers, but its food for thought.

I’ve seen a female before – for those who’ve been with the blog for a long long time think Elizabeth,- who would take prey that Darcy bought in and stash it in hollows around the nest tree for when he was having a hard day’s hunting. (Not that he ever did, and the young fledglings eventually took great delight in finding the stashes,  much likes kids on easter egg day.

So here is the photo version of that long winded discussion.  Curious actions indeed. But to the Kestrel, all part of a day’s activities. Clever bird

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9 thoughts on “The Curious Tale of the Clever Kestrel

  1. A great sequence of shots Dave and an interesting story (as usual). Do we read too much into the actions of animals? Maybe, maybe not. We’ll probably never know, so why not make the conjecture. Who’s going to prove you wrong?

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    1. G,day Rodger, more power to you for reading to the bottom.

      What ever the actions were they made sense to the Kestrel, I guess I’ve concluded that nothing happens by ‘accident’ in birdland. Problem is I see so little of the jigsaw clues, and can’t imagine what the finished look should be.
      Still we keep observing.

      Regards
      David

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  2. Great story, David! Nice piece of conjecture or theorising, whatever. The kestrel has obviously been around long enough to have worked out what she needs to do, in view of the many rivals in the area. As you say, smart bird!

    You make me feel downright inadequate, with your constant flow of posts on your blog. Long may it continue! The posting, not necessarily the inadequacy……

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  3. G,day Brian,
    I’ve spent a lot of time with Kestrels over the years and have worked out some basic behaviours. I’ve had a pair that would come and sit on the fence next to me or hunt around my legs in the grass, and while I can’t say I can ‘think’ Kestrel, I really appreciate the intelligences that is revealed through those eyes.

    What she was attempting to do might well be as you suggest deal with the rivals in the area.
    As it turns I passed by that way today, and looked, (well, you’d have been more surprised if I hadn’t 🙂 ), and the mouse was gone. But, that could have been any one of a number of raptors, foxes and cats in the area.

    Still it all builds up an interesting picture and had we had some nice light, it would have been an excellent day all round.

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  4. I remember your wonderful series on Darcy and Elizabeth, so I know you’re a ‘connoisseur’ of Kestrel. But wow, this behaviour really tops everything. Planning for the future! This is worthy of more than a whisper in the scientific journals 🙂

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    1. Hi Chirstine, I think a Darcy Elizabeth moment only comes once in a lifetime. Even now I get goosebumps when I look at the photo book I made of the event.
      Best shot from today is the “now you see it now you don’t. Says so much about the quality of the little bird.
      thanks for your kind comments.

      Regards David

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  5. G’day David, what a fascinating and well photographically documented story. It’s great to be amazed again and again. Thanks for sharing!

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  6. HI Adam,

    Glad you took the time for alooksee,
    These fascinating insights into the mysteries of bird life is really what I set out to find when I put the idea of the blog together.
    Often times its more of a jigsaw without the box lid picture, but, none the less fun.
    I’d probably never make it as a code cracker.

    Thanks again for stopping by.

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