Rescue / shelter organization,
Worked with pet (didn’t own)
Pennsylvania, United States
Posted Jun 18, 2013
American kestrels are raptors, and as such are protected federally in the United States and most other countries where they naturally occur. To even consider owning one, a person has to first inquire whether or not they are permitted to do so in their municipality and also whether or not they can commit to the level of training needed to become a falconer or a wildlife rehabilitator. To become a falconer, one must study with a master falconer as an apprentice. Kestrels are often selected as a good "first bird" for falconers. Do not attempt wildlife rehabilitation on your own unless you are licensed to do so and have experience with the species. It is illegal in most jurisdictions and raptors can inflict serious injuries.
I am not a falconer, but I do have experience with American kestrels both in a zoo setting and as a wildlife rehabilitator. It is this aspect of their care on which I will focus, and not on falconry.
I worked with one American kestrel that was at least 27 years old (had been in the zoo's care that long, as a non-releasable wild injured bird used for education). He was missing a wing and had only one functioning leg, and yet was more than capable of getting himself around in his cage and he ate well.
I have also raised two nestling kestrels, one whose nest was destroyed in a hurricane and one which was removed from its nest illegally. Both of these were later released. One of them was released near his nest (he was quite mature when found) and another was released in my yard, where he still lives 3 years later.
The fourth is a rehabilitation bird -- a kestrel who somehow lost one of his legs and therefore can't feed himself. He will be a permanent captive and used for education.
Housing depends on the bird's abilities -- a non-flying bird need only be housed ina low, large cage such as a rabbit cage, preferably with a hide box and different thickness rough branches on which to perch. A large dog carrier with rough towels on the bottom can work well for rehabilitation birds.
Feed American kestrels a diet of one (dead, thawed) mouse or day-old chick per day, with one day per week of fasting. They can also be fed chicken or turkey canned cat food in a pinch. Be sure fresh water is available in a small bowl that is heavy and not easily tipped.
Kestrels with permanently incapacitating injuries should be trained to perch on a glove, if possible. This will take considerable training time and it is recommended that anyone partaking in it consults a wildlife rehabilitator or master falconer. They can also be fitted with anklets and jesses if they have full use of both legs and wings, but have another incapacitation (such as partial or full blindness or nerve damage).
Kestrels will be very vocal at meal times, and will also be vocal when interacting with other kestrels. The one I raised from a nestling that still hangs around after three years tends to allow himself within about 10 feet of me but no longer tolerates close proximity. He will often follow me around the yard (perched high above in trees) scolding and demanding a hand-out. They are very responsive to their handlers. I had to hack this particular kestrel (hacking is the process of teaching them to be wild and feed themselves) because he was not damaged and was releasable. This involved training him how to hunt using first young, then progressively mature live pigeons and lizards, and progressively larger fight cages.
Again, do not try to keep a kestrel that you find as a fallen nestling or injured bird. Contact a wildlife rehabilitation centre or an accredited zoo, or your local department of environment (depending on your location) and allow them to use their experience to nurse the bird back to health. The ultimate goal of wildlife rehabilitation is release, and there are special techniques that have to be followed to ensure the bird can feed itself and be safe from danger.