Is Politics for the Birds? Alabama Capitol Hosts Extraordinary Feathered Friends

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Current guests at the Alabama Capitol are non-partisan and very colorful characters. They aren't seen much in these parts anymore, but are making themselves right at home outside the Capitol dome. They usually frequent parks, grasslands, marshes, deserts, plains, prairies and even highway corridors. But, the Alabama Capitol building? Apparently so. Since March 2, two American kestrels – one male, one female – decided to nest and bring their young into the world inside one of the gutter spouts jutting out of the Capitol roof. At least four young nested inside the spout and have now taken wing.

"It is always exciting when the beauty of nature can be experienced right outside your front door," said Governor Bob Riley.

Described as perhaps the most colorful raptor in the world, the American kestrel is the smallest and most common falcon in North America. Formerly known as the sparrow hawk, these amazing hunting birds are found in a variety of habitats. A cavity nester, American kestrels use holes in trees, rock cavities, crevices in cliffs, artificial nest boxes, or small spaces in buildings.

There are 17 subspecies of American kestrels, but only two are found in Alabama. Falco sparverious paulus (southeastern subspecies) differs from Falco sparverious sparverious (northern subspecies) primarily in size (smaller in paulus) and color pattern variations. It is unknown which subspecies is currently nesting in the Capitol building because Montgomery is within the transitional area between the ranges of both subspecies. The most distinctive color pattern variation occurs in the amount and location of the spotting on the flanks of males, but is often variable.

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources State Lands Division Biologist Eric Soehren said it's very interesting to see this pair nest in such an unusual place. "The fact that they chose our Capitol building to nest in spite of the daily noises and disturbances of our downtown surroundings is very exciting," said Soehren. "These birds apparently started incubation in late March based on their behavior. I continued to observe the male and female exchange incubation duties, whereby the incoming adult called at the spout entrance to notify the other that it is time to switch. I observed four young and was able band three of them for identification and tracking purposes." The unique I.D. numbers on the bands will be deposited to the Bird Banding Laboratory in Patuxent, Maryland, so when they are observed and reported, more information can be acquired about their lives. Soehren went on to say, "The young have now fledged and are making themselves quite at home on the Capitol grounds."

Another thing that may make the American kestrel different from other birds of prey is the noises they make. Typically, the species will call "klee" or "killy" in a rapid series followed by a high-pitched whine or chitter, especially when they are excited or upset. The F.s. paulus is very much in decline mainly due to habitat loss, loss of nest sites and pesticide poisoning. In Alabama, resident populations have dwindled from being "locally common" during the early 1900s to "rare to uncommon" by the 1970s to virtually nonexistent today. They are listed as a High Conservation Concern in Alabama. In neighboring Florida, they are listed as Threatened by the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama's natural resources through five divisions: Marine Police, Marine Resources, State Parks, State Lands, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.