A couple weeks ago when I was writing about our serendipitous discovery that one of our kestrels will act as a foster parent, I was having a great deal of difficulty staying on topic.  I kept wanting to write about the morbidly fascinating behavior we see these lovely little birds displaying every day.

As you can probably imagine, the people who visit and work at TreeHouse tend to be pretty big animal lovers, and sometimes it’s hard for them to see the freezers full of dead mice, rats, chickens, deer—whatever we have on hand at the moment.  It’s important to understand, though, that some animals eat other animals, and you will never convince a hawk to turn vegetarian.  We care for a lot of carnivores at TreeHouse, and we want to give them as wild and natural a life as possible.  It would be totally impractical to provide our permanent residents with live prey regularly—for one thing, many of them have injuries that impede their ability to hunt.  Still, we try to feed them as naturally as is feasible.

For anyone who is particularly sensitive about this sort of thing, it might be wise to avoid the kestrel enclosure around feeding time.  Kestrels are beautiful birds, and their small size gives them a deceptively delicate appearance.  But when they hunt—and when they eat—they turn into little killing machines.  Personally, I find it fascinating.

Hawks kill their prey with the talons of their powerful feet.  Kestrels, however, as falcons, catch their prey with their feet but kill by breaking the neck with their beaks.  When one of our kestrels gets a mouse, its first move is always to carry it to a perch and begin tearing at the neck with its beak.  Then it rips the head off.  Actually, to be more precise, it tears at the neck until the head is just dangling by a thread.  Then it proceeds to eat the brain.  I’m not really sure why they go for the brain first.  Maybe it tastes good.  I’ve also heard anecdotally that the brain will decay more quickly than the rest of the body, so maybe it has to do with eating it while it’s still fresh.  In any case, this leads to one of the more disturbing things our kestrels do: they don’t usually eat the whole head; instead, they leave the facial bones and flesh intact.  Then, often, they leave the faces on the platform where we feed them.  I don’t know if they’re trying to make some sort of statement or if it’s just convenient—probably the latter.  Either way, it’s super creepy.


Once the kestrel is finished with the head, it moves on to the rest of the meal, gleefully ripping out entrails and chunks of meat.  If it’s really hungry, it will eat the mouse whole, later coughing up the fur and bones in a pellet.  Other times, it might be pickier.  Being “pickier” means that along with the face, we might find the spine, with tail still attached, lying on the platform.  Maybe I’m just weird, or maybe any 80s or 90s kid would have the same response, but when I see that, the “spine rip” move from Mortal Kombat always pops into my mind.  I think if a kestrel could play video games it would probably like Mortal Kombat.

If the kestrel really isn’t hungry, it might not be able to finish a whole mouse.  In that case, it will save its leftovers for later.  Our kestrels save their leftovers by hanging them in the Christmas tree.  Like ornaments.  To explain, the Christmas tree came with the house when we moved to our new location.  We wanted to find a use for it, and we thought that it would be perfect for the kestrels, as it would contribute to the diverse, naturalistic habitat we were trying to create for them.  And apparently it has.  They sometimes roost in it, and they frequently drape pieces of their food in it.  Like tinsel.  It’s a little bit gross, but mostly interesting.

Trimming the Christmas tree.

Ultimately, if hippos are the killer clowns of the animal kingdom, I’m pretty sure kestrels are the psychotic serial killers who keep trophies of their victims in the basement.  Though they say it’s always the quiet ones, and kestrels are anything but quiet.  Really, they’re just wild animals—predators that are supremely well-adapted for the niche they fill in nature, catching birds in flight and other small, fast things.  When I’m driving down a country road and I see a kestrel shoot through a flock of sparrows and grab one out of the air, I feel a twinge of pity for the sparrow, but mostly I’m delighted to witness nature in action.  It’s the circle of life!