When I was pregnant with our second child, my husband and I knew we needed to determine the baby’s gender before entering into the baby name conversation. We went round and round over what to name baby number one, and realized after we found out his gender that we could have done half the fighting if we’d just waited until the ultrasound. We both like unusual names, but my husband is willing to push things farther than I am, typically. So, when we learned baby number two would be a girl, I was relieved that I would not have to dodge the name Cicero once again, no disrespect meant to Roman senators. A few lovely names made our short list, but we both were enchanted by the name Kestrel.
I’m going to admit something. I had no idea that a kestrel was a thing, let alone a bird of prey, the smallest of the falcons. When we chose the name, I really just loved how it sounded, how the word felt in my mouth, kestrel. It reminded me of “orchestral” which conjured recollections of the passionate interplay in Chopin’s Concertos, or the driving power of the Fifth Movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, or the building, gutting anticipation in Dvorak’s New World. To bless my child with the name Kestrel implied my belief that she would one day insist acknowledgment of the secret things we all feel in the caverns of our souls, for better or for worse.
Now, almost a decade later, my Kestrel has lived up to her name’s orchestral promise, with empathy and emotional intelligence that many adults lack. But she has also caused our family to take interest in her namesake falcon. What I know about this extraordinary hunter is distilled through the lens of an avian oblivious city girl who does not recall ever actually seeing a kestrel in the wild. Nevertheless, the kestrel has helped me see raptors afresh, and more importantly, she has shown me much about myself.
Above all, the kestrel keeps her eye on the prize. Since the kestrel usually weighs just 200 grams, roughly the weight of a baseball, her prey is naturally going to be quite small. Kestrels hunt voles, field mice, grasshoppers, amphibians, reptiles, and sometimes bats. Her small prey can vanish quite easily given their size, so a kestrel must not allow her gaze to be broken. A glance away could mean a lost meal.
I came across a YouTube video called “kestrel belly dance” wherein I saw a leather gloved falconer perching a kestrel in the manner of a high tree branch disrupted by the wind. In the video, when the falconer bobs his arm about, imitating the branch shaken by the gust, the kestrel isolates her head so that her gaze upon the prey is not obscured. She absorbs the movement of the tree branch throughout the rest of her body, but her head does not move at all. Somehow she immobilizes her head while making continuous adjustments throughout her body to accommodate her focus. Watching this belly dancing kestrel is akin to watching a bobble head toy in reverse.
But sometimes dancing on a tree branch is not ideal. There are times when it is necessary for a hunting kestrel to get closer to her prey. Kestrels are able to hover midair, often with no movement at all. Hover! Like a kite! Not necessarily fly into the wind with frenzied wingbeats, but if the breeze is just so, they truly hover, eluding gravity with fully spread falcon wings and tail-feathers opened like a geisha’s fan. From this hovering position, the kestrel watches her prey until just the right moment, whereupon a tremendous burst of energy is exerted to swoop upon her kill. No, swoop is too slow of a word. Dive? The kestrel transforms into a projectile, propelled toward the next meal with the precision of modern ballistics.
Unlike other falcons, kestrels do not kill their prey with their talons. Instead, the kestrel will catch her prey and then take a death wielding nip out of the back of the prey’s head. I am not sure which I would prefer: to have my neck broken by extraordinarily strong talons, or to have the back of my head punctured by a terrifying little beak. If I chose the latter, would it comfort me to know that the kestrel would likely decapitate me right after taking her initial neck nip? Don’t know.
Another economy of the kestrel—it caches its kills to avoid nesting on empty during leaner seasons or bad weather. So, it might catch several meals worth of shrews, snakes, or frogs, and after decapitation, it will shove its future meal into a crack in a fence post or under a grass clump. Retrieval of hoarded hunts always occurs at dusk, to ensure a nice warm belly for sleep, I suppose. I get it. I rummage through the fridge at midnight. Especially during the winter.
These hunting techniques would be impossible without a kestrel’s keen eyesight. Coupled with her focus, a perched kestrel perceives the slightest motion of a would-be kill from up to 100 meters away. And a grasshopper stands no chance against a kestrel hovering 30 meters above. But most terrifying for small mammals like voles and mice is the kestrel’s ability to see ultraviolet light, which is absorbed by the markings of mammals. A kestrel will drop in on the nest of these small rodents because they leave a brightly drawn map in the dirt when they refuse to wait to get home to relieve themselves. This makes me think I’m not too off the mark for biting my son’s head off when he pees in our backyard. I guess I’m more like a raptor than I thought.
The little bird is teaching me so much—eye on the prize, save some for later, eat the heads first (I should have learned that from Ozzy Osbourne). I need to hover over what I’m after and stop getting distracted, especially in my writing practice. If I could handle the wind gusts and adjust the other areas of my life, I could stay fixated on my goals more efficiently. The kestrel doesn’t fret and hammer away indecisively. She hovers and uses only the necessary movements to stay uplifted, a wingbeat or two, the rustling of the tail feathers. I tend to get a goal in mind and then spend all my energy circling, landing, preening, mulling, chirping, wringing my hands.
I find the micro-adjustments of the kestrel calming and inspiring. She does not panic. She does not bite her talons to the quick or pluck out her feathers with her anxious energy. She does not look over her shoulder worrying over how well the other kestrels are hunting. She simply hovers or perches, sometimes watches for the markings of urine, and then she focuses and waits until she knows the moment has come.
My habit is to see something and pounce, then re-evaluate and fret. I’m impatient. I don’t wait for the next direction, clue, indication. I just jump. Then I often come up empty-taloned, so to speak. Somehow, the kestrel watches, hovers, perches, but holds steady until the best moment arrives, and doesn’t just grab at something because she saw it. She waits! I need to learn to wait, to suspend gratification, to require more than the first marshmallow that rolls by when I know I have a steak coming! There is a great deal of economy in watching and waiting.
A story from childhood Sunday school comes to mind–Peter walking on water. What if Peter had just kept his gaze fully focused on Jesus instead of getting so distracted by the impossible detail of his hovering on water, by the cool waves licking the tops of his feet, by the bobbing boat at his side? What if he had stayed fixated on his mentor, this man who graciously granted Peter’s hairbrained request to walk on water in the first place? Perhaps he could have gotten the next direction, and not had to sink quite so quickly, or even get back in the boat at all! Perhaps Jesus and Peter could have enjoyed a nice heart to heart, walking across the surface of the lake. If one of them grew hungry, Jesus could have taught Peter how to reach his hand right down under foot to grab a fresh catch. What if Peter had been a bit more patient, implying his trust in his friend, Jesus?
I wonder if I’m settling for any boat rides, when suspending my addiction to the immediate by hovering until the best moment would be so much more efficient. I believe that if I learned this patience, a discipline would evolve. Shiny objects could become less enticing because my gaze would be fixed on my goal: developing my writing rhythm and craft by committing to one project and seeing it through to a reasonable point. I crave the confidence of knowing the best moment to go in for the kill, no longer rushing down just because a new idea or opportunity caught my wandering eye. I’m ready to perch my behind in my office chair, keep my mind still, and write my story until it’s done, maybe while listening to some Dvorak. Thank you, dear kestrel. You’ve taught me the economy of watching and waiting.
Andrea Dunn is from Indianapolis, Indiana by way of the Texas-Mexico border, Southern Indiana, and North Carolina. She enjoys working at home raising her three children. For decades, she wrote for her own enjoyment and growth, but has begun sharing her work, including poetry to be featured this spring in Flying Island Literary Journal.