American Kestrel With Snake Prey

I just arrived home a few hours ago from an exhilarating six-day camping and photo trip to western Montana.  The weather and light were good most of the time, the birds and mammals often cooperative and always interesting, the natural splendors of that part of the state were infinitely refreshing (as they always are) and once again we met some colorful and interesting characters that I won’t soon forget.  It was one of the best trips ever and at the moment I’m both refreshed and exhausted.

I have many thousands of images to cull and lots of processing to do (plus jury duty looms on my horizon next week) so my schedule is exceptionally full but I thought I’d do a quick post of some interesting behavior I photographed on our second day of the trip.

The only redeeming quality of these images is the fairly unusual prey of this male American Kestrel so this post is documentary only.


american kestrel 3545 ron dudley

Anyone who follows my blog knows that I observe and photograph kestrels often but I’ve never before seen one with snake prey.  In my experience it’s always been voles, mice, small birds or (less often) insects.  When we first noticed this bird it already had the snake on this bush perch.



american kestrel 3543 ron dudley

For a moment it seemed to struggle with the reptile like it might still be alive or twitching but I couldn’t be sure of that and a few seconds later…



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it flew off with the snake dangling below.

BNA Online says that kestrels occasionally take small snakes as prey but relative to the size of the bird I’m not sure I’d call this a small snake.  I suspect it might have been an interesting struggle to watch when this kestrel first pounced on the snake –  an encounter I’d love to photograph one day.

I do wish I knew the species of snake.  I thought the color in the last shot resembled that of a Rubber Boa but the shape doesn’t look quite right with that tapered tail.  Any ideas?

I’m sure I’ll be posting many interesting images from this last Montana trip over the next few weeks so stay tuned…


25 comments to American Kestrel With Snake Prey

  • Patty Chadwick

    I’m still stuck on the snake…it does look like a western terrestrial garter snake when you zoom in on it… They’re new to me, but seem common enough in Montana.

  • Patty Chadwick

    Garter snakes I’ve seen have yellowish bellies, green/black bodies and yellow stripes stripes…when I zoom in on this one, it looks more mottled, like a young gopher snake…head looks more like a gopher snake than a garter snake. I’m not crazy about snakes, but have had some experience with a tiny ring necked snake and a 4-5 foot indigo snake. Have had brief “encounters” with black snakes, garter snakes and a couple of rattlers…am certainly no expert on any of them.

    • Gopher is a definite possibility. If you can see enough detail when blown up, I would say go with it. There are checkered gartersnakes rather than stripes though. But I have to say, it was a tossup between the 2 for me.

  • Julie

    I think that’s a young gopher snake, and it’s most likely deceased. The act of the kestrel dropping off a perch and flapping would cause the snake’s limp body to jostle about. In the earlier shots, the snake is hung up in the branches, but not trying to get a grip. A good catch by the kestrel…there will be good eats tonight!

  • The snake is a garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis. I guess everyone must eat. Nice photos! 🙁

  • Patty Chadwick

    So that’s what a “foot long” is…Yuk! I’ll bet it tastes like chicken….

  • I knew there would be surprises when you returned with your photos, but the kestrel/snake series is most unexpected. Looking forward to seeing more of the images from your trip.

  • Mike

    Whoa! A meal, not a snack! It’s for sure the biggest snake I’ve ever seen a kestrel attached to. It would be interesting to see it delivered to a nest and being fed to nestlings. One high quality “foot-long” a day certainly trumps repeated energy expenditure on low quality prey. Great sequence Ron!

    • If this is the largest snake you’ve seen a kestrel with, that’s saying something – given your experience with the species, Mike. Thanks once again for your insight on these things.

  • Patty Chadwick

    Still stuck on kestrel and snake…I don’t buy that snake is dead because tail is curved up…would just be dangling down if dead…..please help me switch to something else!!!

  • Patty Chadwick

    I figured it out myself….kestrel went to Party Tyme, bought a rubber snake and is on his way to scare somebody…I ‘m so smart I sometimes make myself sick!

  • Patty Chadwick

    I was just checking out the kestrel and the snake, again, and noticed that the bird had grasped the snake in just the right place, just behind the head…couldn’t help wondering if this was because of experience, instinct, bird smarts or dumb luck…snake apparently is not a constrictor…or is it? I don’t recognize it. This encounter really has me curious…so many possibilities…Kestrels don’t eat road kill, do they. This snake doesn’t look flat enough to be run over, anyway….questions,questions,questions….

    • Patty, I’ve never seen a kestrel at road kill and I strongly doubt this snake was road kill. The only road for miles was the one I was on – it was dirt and it probably doesn’t see more than a half dozen vehicles per day on most days.

  • Patty Chadwick

    Welcome back! We missed you…but knew you’d come back with something good. You really surprised me with this one…never knew kestrels even tried to nab a snake… Sure hope this beautiful little guy doesn’t get cocky and tangle with the wrong one.

  • Diana

    I’d say welcome home Ron but my guess is that you are “home” anywhere in nature.
    Plucky little kestrel or maybe lots of hungry family members…

    • Thanks for the welcome back, Diana but you’re right – you’ve got me pegged. When we’re camped and have been out shooting for many hours, when it’s time to quit for the day we don’t say it’s time to go back to the camper or to the campsite – instead we say it’s time to go “home” when we’re in a place like this that we love.

  • Julie Howar

    The bold pattern of squares makes me think it’s a young gopher snake, but I’m no herpetologist! 🙂

  • I agree. Not a small snake at all. An ambitious kestrel, whose ambitions were realised. I am really looking forward to the photos from your trip…

    • Thanks, Elephant’s Child. I’m looking forward to the trip photos too – still haven’t seen most of them, except on the camera screen.

  • Julia

    I am awed! Not only by your amazing capture in your beautiful photos, but also that this amazing little falcon can conquer so much!

  • Charlotte Norton

    Wonderful find and great shots. You are so expert at finding wonderful behavior shots. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you, Charlotte. I don’t know how “expert” I am – maybe it’s just that I put in so much time looking for this stuff that I eventually find something interesting.