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Every week there are new marvels to look for in the outdoors, and Discover Nature highlights these attractions. The Missouri Department of Conservation’s Josh Hartwig brings us the stories of river otters, luna moths, red buds, and other actors as they take center stage in nature’s theater.You can hear Discover Nature, Mondays at 7:42 a.m. and 5:18 p.m.

Discover Nature: Roadside Divers and Diners in Missouri

062810 American Kestrel-7.jpg
MDC Staff
The smallest and most colorful raptor.

While on the road this holiday season, be on the lookout for these roadside dive-bombers: American kestrels.

They are blue-jay sized birds of prey found throughout the state. Formerly known as sparrow hawks, kestrels may be North America's smallest falcon, but are fierce predators, streamlined for speed and agility.

Look for kestrels perched on wires, fences, or highway signs in open areas. They will often pump their tails to balance. Kestrels stand out from other raptors by their colors. They have a reddish-brown back and tail, two dark bars like sideburns on their face and blue wings. They look pale when watching them from below. Look for their long, square-tipped tail and swept-back wingtips in flight.

Their hunting style is must-see. Kestrels will hover in mid-air -- wings beating furiously -- then dive-bomb toward the ground for a meal. And these small raptors are favorites of birders because of their graceful flight and attractive plumage. Because many old-growth trees and snags are being cut or cleared, these beautiful falcons have declined in some areas. But many Missourians have built and installed nesting boxes so they can watch kestrels raise and feed growing families.

Any small animal is fair game for kestrels, which hunt small birds, rodents, insects, and reptiles. In warmer months they’ll go for grasshoppers. This efficient raptor specializes in smaller prey that larger raptors might ignore, and thus keeps the populations of those prey species in check.

Kestrels depend on old, dead trees for nesting cavities or will also use large, man-made nesting boxes. Some states have boxes installed on the backs of highway signs to take advantage of their roadside habitat preference.

Look for these dive-bombers on your next road trip. St. Louis and Kansas City have several nesting pairs. Or you can help them out by building a nest box to attract a pair to an open area near you and watch them raise their families.

Learn more at MissouriConservation.org.

Josh Hartwig is the host of Discover Nature and a media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
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