Buzzards and Hawks and Kestrels

While visiting friends in Bingen, a German friend pointed to a bird and said: "Look! It's a buzzard!" I looked, and I saw a hawk. The only buzzard where I grew up was the disgusting American Turkey Buzzard. It shared a nasty reputation with vultures: rangy, dusty-feathered, bare-headed corpse-munchers that like to gather around rotting carcasses, poking and prodding. If you came upon a bunch of them, they'd glare at your with their evil little eyes above beaks smeared with rotting blood. I thought to myself: what the hell are buzzards doing in a nice place like Europe? Hawks, on the other hand, were stately, elegant creatures who caught live prey and always looked sharp, with nary a feather out of place. What I was looking at was, to me, a hawk.

However, as it turns out, the German was right: we were indeed looking at a European buzzard. Americans call some buzzards hawks, but apparently nobody else does. A buzzard is a buzzard, and the European buzzard is Buteo buteo. During a recent bike ride through the country, I came upon one performing an odd mid-air dance. Usually, buzzards loiter about in trees, swooping down to catch the odd vole or rabbit. But this one was hunting in the middle of a freshly-plowed beet field. There was no tree to roost on, so it positioned itself against the headwind, and then flapped its wings rapidly to hover in place. While it hovered, it scanned the field below for any signs of movement. It would hover for 3-4 minutes, then move a couple dozen meters downfield and resume the stationary hunting. Here's a picture:

Hovering Hawk near the Viehstrasse

It was a mesmerizing performance. Made me want to take up falconry! 

UPDATE: Jan in comments thinks it may have been a kestrel. Which allows me to use two of my favorite words, 'kestrel' and 'vole', in the same sentence. They sound like the names of warring princes in some ancient Nordic saga.

3 thoughts on “Buzzards and Hawks and Kestrels

  1. Sure you didn’t saw a falcon? This hovering is very typical for Common kestrel (Turmfalke Falco tinnunculus) and the pointy wing form in your picture is more falcon like than buzzard like.
    We have quite a bunch of birds of prey here in Germany…


  2. I had never seen the word kestrel until now so I had to look it up, and… do not read further if you’re happy with the Nordic warring prince image. (I was.)
    It comes from crécelle, which is the French name of a rattle with a dented wheel (it doesn’t seem to have a specific name in English (, that gave its name to this bird (faucon crécerelle), obviously because of its scream. Voilà.


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