For the Birds Radio Program: Bat vs. Falcons

Original Air Date: Sept. 25, 1996

When four American Kestrels ganged up on a lone little bat, Laura Erickson was on hand to witness the drama. 3:47 (Date confirmed)

Audio missing


Last Sunday I was the counter at the Lakewood Pumping Station, with my 12-year-old daughter Katie recording data. We arrived in semi-darkness just in time to watch a bat fluttering over our lookout. Bats are always a treat to watch, living on wings made of skin stretched between long fingers. Bird wings are attached to their arms rather than their fingers. Like nighthawks, bats fly erratically, darting and weaving this way and that in an eternal quest for small airborne insects. And this Sunday, the pumping station was rich in mosquitoes and other bat food.

Suddenly, in flew an American Kestrel. This dainty hawk is nicknamed the sparrow hawk, and eats huge quantities of grasshoppers, dragonflies, and other large insects, but hardly limits itself to bugs and small birds. It’s perfectly willing to grab for all the gusto it can get, and one medium-sized bat provides more protein than a hundred dragonflies, with a lot less work. So the kestrel made a beeline for the bat.

As the kestrel approached, the bat blindly continued its buggy quest until the kestrel got within about a foot of it. At the moment its sonar detected the predator, the bat took evasive action, darting away like a shot. The kestrel made chase, and again, the moment the kestrel came about a foot from the bat, again the bat fluttered out of reach. It seemed like the bat could easily outmaneuver the kestrel when suddenly in flew three more kestrels. Now the battle was four against one.

I’m a hawk counter and a hawk aficionado, so you’d think I’d be rooting for the kestrels, but I’m also a mommy. Perhaps it’s that hormonal edge that puts me on the side of the weak and vulnerable. Anyway, I sure wanted that little bat to get away. But the bat didn’t seem to be able to keep track of the kestrels unless they were within about a foot, and every time it eluded one, that set it in the path of another.

Katie and I were awestruck watching the drama unfold. I found myself gasping at every close call, and there were dozens as the kestrels closed in. The bewildered little bad came lower and lower toward the ground, the kestrels hot on its tail. Things looked pretty bleak.

As the bat drew closer to the ground, it also started moving slowly toward a stand of trees on the other side of the road. The kestrels seemed to realize that the bat had a plan, but the exuded the confidence that a chess player with a queen, two rooks, and a bishop feels toward an opponent with nothing left but pawns and one knight. They drew ever closer to the bat as it drew ever closer to the trees, which clearly marked the finish line. Before it could reach safety, the kestrels tore in for the kill, but the bat’s two ears were an even match for eight falcon eyes, and it somehow managed to keep out of reach as it darted into the trees.

Kestrels aren’t kamikaze pilots, and none of these were willing to risk a broken wing for a flying mouse. So they flew about outside the tree stand for a few minutes, perhaps hoping that the bat would agree to a rematch, and then they moved on, hoping for easier pickins further on. I felt sorry for four hungry kestrels, but far more relief and happiness that one clever little bat will stay on the planet for a while longer.