RICKREALL – Penny the American kestrel is a pretty little bird – but make no mistake – she’s lethal.
That is, if you are a mouse, insect or smaller bird.
Penny’s tiny beak is designed to sever the spines of her prey, her talons can pierce internal organs of what she catches, and she can dive at high speed to swoop up her dinner.
“Really everything about them makes them super efficient at what they do, which is fascinating,” said Penny’s handler, Kathleen Dodge, who works for the Chintimini Wildlife Center’s raptor education program.
Dodge and Penny visited the Polk County Fair Friday afternoon and the tiny raptor – about the size of a blue jay -- raised the curiosity of both children and adults.
“As an American kestrel, she’s actually a type of falcon,” Dodge said to small crowd of people at the Polk Soil & Water Conservation District Cultivating Family Activity Tent. “Falcons can be this small.”
She’s tinier than other members of the falcon family, such as the peregrine falcon, that can reach speeds up to 200 mph while diving for prey.
“Penny here can drive at 100 miles per hour, so she can’t dive as fast as a peregrine, but she definitely dives when she is catching her food,” Dodge said. “She really, really likes mice, that is her favorite thing to eat, but we also feed her quail because that’s a type of bird. She eats rats, too. In the wild that would be a little too big for her to catch.”
Penny lives full time at the wildlife center because, while perfectly healthy, she was never taught to hunt.
“She’s 3 years old. She came to us already as an adult, but a person took her illegally from her nest when she was a baby, so she got way too used people,” Dodge said. “Because that happened she can’t be released back out to the wild. She can’t hunt for herself, so that’s really why we can’t release her.”
Dodge said the mission of Chintimini is to release rehabilitated animals back to the wild – and Penny helps spread the message. She has 11 other birds living with her at the wildlife center, all of which are permanently injured or have genetic abnormalities that would make it impossible for them to survive in the wild.
“My main job is to take care of those birds and to do outreach and stuff like that,” Dodge said. “But we also have a lot of volunteers that work in the clinic and help with taking care of the birds, too.”
She said the operation is mostly volunteer-based.
People who gathered to hear Dodge’s presentation shared their own experiences with raptors. One woman had an unfortunate story about a hawk that turned her bird feeder into, well, a bird feeder. She said the hawk dove out of the sky and killed on contact a little bird dining in her yard.
“That dive was insane,” she said. “That poor bird. I felt I had set the trap.”
Dodge brought along examples of feathers, beaks and talons of other birds of prey to give people a closer look at just how finely equipped the birds are for hunting.
“They are really adept predators,” she said.
Chintinmini will host another presentation on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Cultivating Family Activity Tent.
For more information: www.chintiminiwildlife.org.