My favorite falcon?

Okay, I may not know enough types of falcons to have a legitimate favorite (and the owl remains my favorite raptor, that less specific bird-of-prey category). But proving the zoo’s thesis that you grow fondest of the species that you meet in person, I developed a keen interest in the American kestrel after a recent Close Encounters session by the turtle tank between Tropics and the Minnesota Trail. The encounter was advertised only as “Meet a Bird of Prey,” scheduled for a time when I did not have a “must-cover” volunteer assignment elsewhere. So I went to see what kind of bird it was.

American kestrel with Mary

Zoo staffer Mary presented kestrel Miici, whose name she described as an Indian word for “eat.” Miici is a former pet, which makes her “imprinted” on humans for food. (The zoo feeds her mouse chunks and mealworms.) The Warner Nature Center, which has a densely informative page on kestrels and other types of raptors, advises against adopting a kestrel as a house pet — which may be tempting, since they’re robin-sized and cute. But even as the smallest falcon, weighing just under 5 ounces (or the weight of a tennis ball), they’re an aggressive hunter, with a raptor’s hooked beak and sharp talons.

American kestrel head turnCamera-shy Miici kept turning her head every time I took her picture — not the full backward-facing 135 degrees that an owl head can turn, but much farther than our own limited range of motion. She also bobbed her head up and down, telescoping her neck, to an amusing extent. Mary described some of her falcon features — the black marks under a kestrel’s eyes serve the same function as the similar but artificial marks on a football player’s face: to absorb sunlight so it doesn’t reflect into the eyes. Kestrels are found throughout North America, especially near open areas where they can spot ground-dwelling prey with their excellent long-distance vision. At the zoo, in a season less bitterly cold than this one, a staff-led encounter with Miici would typically happen outdoors. I look forward to meeting her again on Lakeside Plaza in a gentler season.