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.
Kestrels are common residents of Missouri. They are the only North American falcon or hawk that nests in cavities, such as woodpecker holes or crevices in cliffs, barns and buildings. They don't shy away from developed areas, and will even nest in large cities.
While handling the household duties of nesting and rearing young, the female kestrel depends on the male to bring home food. He does his job of hunter well. After he captures prey, he flies back with it, calling as he nears the nest. The female, hearing the call, leaves the nest and follows her mate to a landing spot where she takes the food.
Red-tailed hawks also are common along Missouri's roadsides. They are stocky brown birds much bigger than kestrels. They often perch on utility poles or fence posts, or on tree branches in winter. A close look reveals their dark belly-band and reddish tail. Red-tailed hawks frequent prairies, forests, mountains, deserts, farmlands and even suburban areas. If you look out across open country in mid-morning, you may spot red-tails seeming to float on warm air currents rising from the ground.
Riding a wing span of about 4 feet, red-tails soar over the countryside looking for small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Any creature they can catch and kill is likely to be part of their diet. Red-tails also like to hunt from tree limbs, utility poles and other perches. Their sharp eyes can catch the slightest movement below.
Red-tails are not shy. They guard their territory, and if they spot an intruding hawk, they'll go after it. With legs down and screaming a piercing, high-pitched cry, they dive at the other bird and try to hit it with their talons. They may also attack an intruder perched nearby with the same talon-strike and scream. Red-tails will even dive at and chase much larger birds, including golden eagles and bald eagles.
Red-tail pairs may stay together for years on the same territory. When nesting time comes in mid-March (the earliest nesting time of all Missouri hawks), they may build a new nest of sticks and bark or renovate the same nest they used the year before. Nests that have been used for years may be three or more feet high. The birds usually bring fresh greenery to the nest - sprigs of leaves or pine needles - until the young birds (two is the usual number) fledge and leave the nest. The fresh greens repel parasites and help hide the nestlings.
Broad-winged hawks also find good hunting along our roadsides. They're brown, crow-sized birds that sometimes appear a bit sluggish. Their wailing whistle, sueeee-oh, doesn't sound much like a hawk. Look for their broad, black-and-white tail band.
Broad-wings stay in Missouri during spring and summer and spend the winter in South America. Near the end of September, they move in great flocks called kettles, rising on thermals and then coasting until they can catch another thermal. As many as a thousand broad-wings have been sighted at once passing over Jefferson City and St. Louis. Over 19,000 were counted in one day as they winged their way over Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania.
Broad-wings live in forests, especially along rivers and creeks. They hunt by watching from a perch for small mammals, birds, frogs, toads, snakes and insects.
At nesting time, broad-wings return to the area they used the year before and build a new nest, usually in a crotch of a tree. The stick nest is lined with bark and moss and green leaves that the birds pull directly from the tree.
If you're passing a field or meadow or marshy ground, you may spy a slim bird with a white rump and long wings flying slow and near to the ground. It may seem to tilt a bit as it flies.
The northern harrier is the only North American member of a group of hawks know as harriers. Harriers seldom look for prey from a perch as do other hawks and falcons. Instead, they hunt by flying low to the ground during much of the day, taking small creatures by surprise. Their owl-like, disk-shaped face helps amplify sound, which helps them find prey.
Northern harrier courtship is a spectacular affair. They perform steep dives and climbs, and they somersault in a series of quick loops with the bird upside down at the top of the loops. Mating and nesting follow these exciting performances.
Northern harriers used to be called marsh hawks. The males are gray overall. Females are brown.
Harriers are one of the few hawks to nest on the ground. They lay four or five eggs in a mound of dead reeds and grass in meadows, or in or near marshes. They nest less frequently in Missouri now due to wetland drainage and the reduction in prairies and meadows. Except during the nesting season, harriers are common residents in Missouri.
Kites and merlins
The Mississippi kite is a gray, falcon-shaped hawk with narrow, pointed wings. It's a marvelous flier and spends hours in the air, soaring and gliding. It rarely flaps its wings. Unlike other raptors that circle in the air, it moves in a more or less straight line as it flies.
Insects on the wing are the Mississippi kite's chief prey. Grasshoppers, dragonflies, beetles, crickets, cicadas and locusts make up much of its diet, but it occasionally eats lizards, frogs or snakes. When it sees prey, the bird fans its tail, hangs for a moment in midair, then drops downward and captures prey with its talons.
Mississippi kites spend the winter in South America, but they stay in Missouri from April through September. They nest mainly in southeastern Missouri along the Mississippi River. They often breed in small colonies of up to 20 pairs and will hunt together, too.
Merlins - jay-sized birds, sometimes called pigeon hawks - don't nest in Missouri, but they pass through the state in spring and fall. Some people call them "bullet hawks" or "blue streaks." These names fit them well because merlins are the speed demons of the air. With long, boldly-banded tails and long pointed wings, they dash and zoom, veer and zigzag as they catch insects in flight, especially dragonflies. They're small, but they often harass larger hawks and gulls.
They're also experts in catching birds, their major prey. They fly in a direct line over open forest where they hope to surprise flocks of birds. When they do, they may snatch a bird that is slow to escape.
Red-shouldered hawks often fly among trees in wet woodlands or near streams. They range from 18 to 22 inches long and have a wingspan of about 40 inches. Females are generally larger than males. Heavy dark bands cross their fan tails on both sides. It's hard to see their rusty or rufous shoulders from below.
The best time to see red-shouldered hawks is in midmorning. In early spring, they spend much of the day soaring through the sky, noisily defending their territory. Their sharp, screeching kee-yah, kee-yah cries are distinctive.
These hawks often sit on the tops of dead trees where they have a good view of the forest floor. They eat birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. They capture prey by dropping on it from the air. Sometimes they forage along streams for crayfish. People often see them while canoeing Ozark rivers.
Some red-shouldered hawks remain in Missouri all winter, but migrants start arriving in early March and leave by about the middle of November. Normally solitary birds, they form strong pair bonds during the nesting season. They build their large nests of twigs, bark and leaves high up in the trees of wetland woods.
On your next road trip in the country, keep your eyes on the road, but watch for roadside raptors, too.