WC generally applauds any news story that highlights the plight of birds. But an article is more helpful if it can get the facts straight. An article that gets details wrong hurts the case an author is trying to make.
Dave Taft’s recent article on American Kestrels is a case in point. Taft points out that Kestrels are in a serious, steady decline. But he weakens his own argument by some egregious errors. Those include:
- Calling American Kestrels “hawks.” They aren’t hawks; they are falcons. Both falcons and hawks are raptors, but falcons are more closely related to parrots than they are to hawks. Since at least 1983, the confusion about European Kestrels, commonly called the Sparrowhawk, and American Kestrels, a falcon, has been sorted out. American Kestrels are about as closely related to hawks as humans are to marmosets; not very close at all. Taft’s repeatedly calling Kestrels hawks is a careless mistake that undermines his point.
- Describing the range of American Kestrels as extending to the “Alaskan Panhandle” is a double mistake. WC has watched kestrels on the Canning River in the Brooks Range, in Nome, in King Salmon and, of course, in Fairbanks, where WC and Mrs. WC hosted a kestrel family in their yard. Ironically, American Kestrels are comparatively uncommon in southeast Alaska. Kestrels prefer open, grassy areas to hunt. There’s not a lot of that habitat in southeast Alaska. Even a glance at a range maps in any bird guide would have shown Mr. Taft his mistake. Again, Mr. Taft’s sloppy research undermines his important key point.
- Calling American Kestrels “a killer on the wing” doesn’t help, either. Unlike, say, humans, kestrels don’t kill for fun or “recreation.” They hunt and kill to eat and to feed their kids. Evolution has designed them to do that as efficiently as possible. Calling them “killers” is an anthropomorphic distortion.
- And then there is Mr. Taft’s “Alaskan Panhandle”. WC won’t speak for his Alaska readers, but this is a fingernails-on-a-chalkboard kind of issue for him. Is it the Idahoan Panhandle? The Texan Panhandle? The Oklahoman Panhandle. Nope. And it’s not the Alaskan Panhandle, either. Even the term “Panhandle” isn’t used by Alaskans to refer to the southeastern part of the state.
Both breeding bird surveys and citizen science like Christmas Bird Counts strongly support a long, gradual decline in American Kestrel populations. In some regions, the cause is known. For example, the logging of essentially all mature southern pine in the southeast United States has cost Kestrels that nesting cavities they need. In most regions, though, the cause is unknown. There has certainly been a decline in population levels in Interior Alaska.
Maybe WC is being obsessive here. But also maybe not. And there is no question kestrels are in decline.