AZTEC — It doesn't take long for the circling birds of prey to realize meal time is at hand. They rush to Michael Fauteaux's outstretched hand and alight on his fingers as they peck at an unfortunate lesser bird.

Fauteaux is gradually weaning the four American kestrels a type of falcon from human-assisted feeding as they gain strength and learn how to hunt on their own.

The birds are recovering nicely after being found June 19 inside a pump jack that was trucked to Farmington from the Lindrith area.

Fauteaux, a licensed falconer with more than 30 years experience, has been caring for the birds for nearly three weeks. He took over caring for the foursome from Neal and Lynn Hood, a Farmington couple who took in the birds for a few days after a Dawn Trucking crew discovered them inside the pump jack.

The birds are healthy and flying. Fauteaux allows them to hunt during the day. Their preferred prey includes sparrows and mice.

Then every night, he walks outside his Aztec home with a sparrow to offer in case the kestrels weren't successful in their daytime hunting.

When they find food on their own, they reject Fauteaux's nightly feedings. Their hunting skills are improving, and Fauteaux expects they won't need his sparrow snacks within a few weeks.

"It keeps their system sustained while they learn to hunt," Fauteaux said. "They kind of wean off of my feeding them."

The birds can quickly become weak if they don't eat every day, he said. Once they're weak, they can't hunt effectively and quickly find themselves in trouble.

"You can't just turn them loose," he said.

During a feeding session Tuesday, a sparrow wriggled free of Fauteaux's grasp and took flight. One of the kestrels pursued the prey, zipping behind a neighboring house.

"That's how they learn," Fauteaux said.

Fauteaux identified the birds as American kestrels, a common species of small falcon. The birds were initially misidentified as red-tailed hawks.

Fauteaux took the birds in after seeing their photo in The Daily Times and realizing he could help. He got in touch with the Hoods, who had planned to bring the birds to a rehabilitation center in Espanola. The Hoods were glad to keep the birds nearby.

"We were really happy about the fact that they were going to be released here, and not down near Espanola where they're not from," said Lynn Hood, who with Neal runs Atlas Engraving, a trophy shop on Farmington's Main Street.

Fauteaux expects the birds to hang around for a couple of weeks before they move on. If nothing else, they should migrate south by the end of August, he said.

The birds are now six weeks old and fully grown. Fauteaux said they have as good of a prognosis as any healthy bird in the wild.

"The chance of them surviving, as far as being able to fend for themselves, is very good," he said.