American Kestrel

American Kestrel

Falco sparverius
L ~10" / WS ~22"

American Kestrel is the smallest North American falcon (about the size of a jay). They are colorful birds of open country, regularly seen sitting along roadsides or hunting over fields. They are skilled at hunting from a perch, dropping down on mice hiding in the grass, lizards camouflaged in the sand, or insects that catch their eye. However, they are famous for their hover-hunting abilities, of which they do more adeptly than any other raptor! When hovering, they scan the horizon for prey while remaining in the same precise airspace, allowing them uninterrupted focus. Kestrels also catch dragonflies and butterflies on the wing, picking them apart in mid-flight. Larger prey (such as voles) is often half eaten then hidden nearby for a later meal.

Kestrels are high-energy birds, appearing restless when perched, bobbing their heads or tails up and down, or vocalizing (an excited, high-pitched "klee-klee-klee"...) for no apparent reason. They flourish in populated towns or farmlands as equally well as they do in pristine deserts. They are cavity-nesting birds, and frequent artificial nest boxes, abandoned buildings, or even nest in roof openings of active residences. In remote areas, they use holes in trees, or cliff-face crevices as nest substrates. Male and female are essentially equal in size.

Shape

  • Wings appear lengthy in a soar, similar to Peregrine and Prairie Falcon, but are slimmer overall.
  • Wing tips are also less sharply pointed than other falcons.
  • Head appears small, and tail and body are slim. Tail does not taper towards the tip.
  • At eye level, wings are hunched at the shoulders, with drooped hands.

Flight

  • Buoyant and dainty, easily buffeted by the wind.
  • Flap and glide intermittently, appearing like Sharp-shinned Hawks.
  • Wing beats are quick and 'flickering' with sweptback hands, lacking stiffness or power.
  • When migrating, able to use powered flight for long distances, but can soar with ease, rising quickly in any conditions.
  • Soar and glide on flat or slightly drooped wings.

Plumage

  • Males are vibrant orange on the top with blue upperwings and black primaries. The tail is orange with a broad black tip. The outer tail feathers (sometimes the outer few) may have multiple bands, and when folded can look completely banded underneath. Adult males are buffy on the underbody with few black spots, and orangey breast. Juvenile males are whitish underneath with dark streaks, but molt into adult plumage during the first fall.
  • Females are orange above with black barring. Tail is orange with multiple black bands. Females are pale buff below with dark rufous streaks. Juveniles and adult females are nearly identical to each other and cannot be told apart in the field.
  • All Kestrels have dark brown eyes, and whitish spots along the trailing edge of the wings that appear translucent when backlit, these are typically more prominent in males. Also have a black "double moustache" on their face, which tells them from European species'. Kestrels that reside from southern Louisiana to South Carolina throughout peninsular Florida are lightly unmarked underneath with the Florida peninsular birds the palest of all.

Migration

  • Kestrels are fairly common at most migration sites in the US, with large numbers along the Atlantic Coast in fall sites such as Cape May, NJ, and Kiptopeke, VA. Peak flights from mid-September to early October.
  • In the West, the Goshute Mts., NV, Wasatch Mts., UT, and Marin Headlands, CA see the greatest fall numbers.
  • Spring migration is more widespread, mainly from late March through early May. Significant spring flights occur along the southern shores of the Great Lakes, and foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

Distribution

 (Map from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds. For dynamic distribution maps, visit the eBird website.)

Kestrel map

Media