Driving down the highway, you spot a bird hovering over the grassy median like a small helicopter. The bird is about the size of a blue jay and has a reddish-brown back and tail, bluish wings, and black face marks that look like a mustache. It hangs in the air, and then it suddenly drops feet-first into the grass.
The bird is an American kestrel, the smallest North American falcon and one of our most abundant and colorful raptors, or birds of prey. As is the case with many of Missouri's raptors, one of the best places to see them is from the road.
Roadsides are great spots to see birds of prey in action. The cleared right-of-ways and nearby fields create hunting grounds for raptors. The poles and utility wires that usually parallel our roadways provide them with places to perch while they watch for other animals to eat.
Raptors are birds with keen eyesight, sharp, hooked beaks for tearing prey and strong feet with large, sharp talons for killing and holding prey. A bony shield above each eye gives them a fierce look. This shield helps shade their eyes from the sun and protects them from tree limbs, brush and struggling prey when they're hunting.
Merely eating other animals does not make a bird a raptor. Herons, for example, eat fish. Warblers eat insects and crows may eat birds, but none is considered a raptor.
Raptors that are active during the day belong to the Order Falconiformes, which sets them apart from night raptors, the owls.
Raptors come in all sizes. A golden eagle may weigh up to 14 pounds and have a wingspread of some 8 feet, but a merlin may only weigh 10 ounces and have a wingspan of about 1 foot. Whatever their size, raptors are usually near the top of their food chains. They're usually the ones pursuing other species.
Even when you are rolling down the highway at 60 miles per hour, it's easy to recognize an American kestrel. It is the only North American falcon that will hover as it searches for mice, birds, reptiles, insects or other food. They usually drop feet first into the grass when they are after an insect. If after a mammal, a kestrel would more likely dive headfirst.
Kestrels capture prey on the ground rather than in the air, as do other falcons. They're commonly called sparrow hawks because they regularly prey upon house sparrows.