One reason I like the name sparrow hawk, other than that it was the first name I learned for this little hawk, is that it’s an American name. Kestrel is a European name, derived from Old French according to Edward S. Gruson in “Words for Birds.”
There is a kestrel in Europe. It’s very similar to our kestrel, or, since it was named earlier, ours is similar to the European bird. It too is a small hawk and the two are similarly colored. So similar are the two in appearance and in habits that they were considered the same, one species, for a time.
The kestrel is a hawk but it’s a falcon too. Falcons, however, are simply hawks that are streamlined, more slender than a red-tailed or other large hawk, with more slender, pointed wings instead of broad wings with rounded ends. The red-tailed and other big hawks are noted for soaring, falcons for speed. Think peregrine and that winged white predator of the Arctic, gyrfalcon.
The kestrel is not nearly as fast as a peregrine or gyrfalcon. But it doesn’t hunt like those winged speedsters. It perches where it can see the ground, often on a power line, watches until it sees a mouse or large insect, then launches from its perch and plunges down with feet and legs extended, landing on its prey. Or, beating its wings rapidly, it hovers over a field like a leaf caught in a whirling updraft, stops and partly folds its flailing wings when it sees prey below and plunges down. For this the kestrel has another name, windhover.
I saw two kestrels this morning as I drove into town. Each was perched on a power line along the side of the road. At 55 miles per hour with a car behind me, I felt I couldn’t slow or stop I could only glimpse their color but kestrels are easy to identify. They’re only slightly longer than a robin but they have a much larger head proportionate to their body and they perch upright. Further, though I only had a glimpse of their colors, they were rusty-brown and black, not the colors of any other birds of our area that I commonly see perched on power lines.
Kestrels are birds of many names, grasshopper hawk, mouse hawk, windhover, and for me, sparrow hawk