What makes fifteen finches suddenly take flight from the feeder? Sudden flight is a common event and not because of children. Back in December a Coopers Hawk perched in a small tree 10 feet from the feeders, making us fairly sure that predators scare away the nervous finches. Yesterday, the TVCS Bird Club watched a culprit in action! On a telephone pole within 60 feet of our classroom feeders was a falcon-like bird, eating a bird! Through binoculars, we could see the headless meal, but without binoculars, we saw light-colored flight feathers or perhaps tail feathers, fluttering down from the pole, and stringy sinews that the bird pulled from its prey. We were surprised at how long the predator took to thoroughly complete its meal. The whole process was at least 20 minutes. The predator was so intent on eating that we were able to observe from school, then walk around the block and observe with a different background sky.
The predator was a small dark falconlike bird. Against a bright grey sky it was difficult to see characteristic colors and patterns of the American Kestrel, but they did not seem to be there. Careful binocular observations by first-time fifth grade birders noted that the back of the bird was a solid dark color, but that there were white and brown bars or dots on the breast feathers near the legs. One observer noted faint light bars on the tail feathers. Sorting through suggestions that the bird was an American kestrel, a peregrine falcon, and a merlin, our novice group decided that we were looking at a small merlin (Falco columbarius). If this was a merlin, then we can expect that it caught its meal on wing, not at the feeder. But wouldn't you be scared if you saw the shadow of a vicious killer fly above you! We think the birds at the feeders look skywards constantly.