Vote Kestrel! | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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Vote Kestrel!

Neither waxwing, nor kingbird, the best candidate for official bird of Chicago is right under our noses.

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By Jerry Sullivan

I admit that I have been remiss on this issue. The Chicago Audubon Society spent months putting together a list of suitable candidates for official Chicago City Bird. I could have got into the game at any point with a simple E-mail. But I didn't, and now, like a New Hampshire voter who slept late on primary day, I find that the ballots have been printed and my bird is not among the choices.

Of the six birds that the society and the city's Department of Environment are presenting as candidates, only two seem worth considering. Cedar waxwings? Lovely birds, but has anyone ever found a nest within the city limits? Eastern kingbirds do nest in our larger parks--and on golf courses--but you are unlikely to find them hanging around your neighborhood. And they are late arrivals in the spring, early migrants in the fall. In fact, they spend most of the year in the forests of the Amazon.

Belted kingfishers live around our lakes and rivers, but I don't expect to find a nest at Montrose Harbor--and I am certain I wouldn't find one at, say, Pulaski and Montrose. Peregrine falcons are glorious birds, but they are here only because we have introduced them--and they are almost entirely confined to the high-rises along the lakefront.

The two real candidates on the list are the black-crowned night heron and the common nighthawk. The night heron is a threatened species in Illinois that has managed to maintain large nesting colonies in the marshes around Lake Calumet. You can enjoy a beer at the outdoor tables on Navy Pier on a summer evening and watch herons passing over.

Nighthawks can be seen and heard in almost any Chicago neighborhood at twilight or during the night. But like the kingbird, they are late arrivals in the spring and by Labor Day are on their way back to South America.

My own candidate--the species somehow slighted by the voters in this primary--would have been the American kestrel, Falco sparverius. The genus name tells us that the kestrel is a falcon, a smaller relative of the lordly peregrine but built on the same body plan. Its wings are long, slender, and pointed, making it a fast flyer. Its tail is also long, providing a large rudder for sudden stops and quick turns.

Kestrels are gorgeous little birds--big headed, barrel-chested, with two vertical dark stripes on the sides of their heads. The females are rusty brown with black bars on their wings, back, and tail. The males are similarly colored, except their wings are slate gray.

They have the hooked beaks of raptors and yellow legs and feet tipped with sharp, curved talons. They are scarcely larger than robins, yet they catch, kill, and eat mice and house sparrows.

Could we mount a write-in campaign for the kestrel? We might get the archdiocese behind us. The Eurasian kestrel, Falco tinnunculus, a very similar bird, inspired Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit, to write "The Windhover: To Christ Our Lord," a short poem whose explosive, compacted imagery can raise the hair on your arms even if you are an unbeliever.

The windhover hung in the air, "dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding / Of the rolling level underneath him steady air," and you can see kestrels doing exactly that along the Kennedy Expressway. They hang on the wind or hold their position with shallow wing beats, waiting for something to move in the grass below.

And they live--year-round--in the neighborhoods. I have lived in places from Devon Avenue to 59th Street and from the lakefront to Kedzie. I have never lived in a neighborhood without kestrels. I don't believe there is a neighborhood without kestrels within the city limits.

And they got here on their own. Nobody introduced them. In natural areas they nest in holes in hollow trees. In the city they have learned to find holes under the eaves of buildings. A perfectly manicured neighborhood where every strip of soffit is fastened just so and every dead tree limb is instantly trimmed has no space for kestrels. But city neighborhoods, where not every resident is obsessive, are ideal habitat.

They live with us year-round. They nest in every neighborhood and hunt the grass along the median strips. They eat mice. They are beautiful. And in keeping with the dark side of our city's history, they are killers. Vote kestrel!

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