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American Kestrels Are Small But Mighty Falcons

Updated: Mar 31, 2021

American kestrels are common throughout the United States. They have bold color patterns that would make you think they would be hard to miss. However, chances are you have passed one by and didn’t even notice it!

They are the smallest of the falcons, about the same size as mourning doves, which they often get confused for. Even though they are small, American kestrels are packed with adaptations and skills to make them fierce predators.

Fashion forward

One of the most colorful raptors, American kestrels are shades of blue and cinnamon reddish-brown as well as black and white. They are one of three North American raptor species to have different color patterns for males and females. Males are more colorful than females, sporting a rusty spot on top of their heads, blue-hued wings and one black bar on their orange tails. Females have all-grayish-blue heads with bodies that are a rusty cinnamon color and many black bars on their tails.

Both male and female kestrels have a trick up their sleeves. Just like your mom, these birds seem to have eyes in the back of their heads! They have black spots on the side of their heads, along with a black triangle spot. This formation of spots appears to look like another face. The thought is that this faux face fools any bigger birds from above, tricking them into believing the kestrel is always watching.

Taking in the views

Like other raptors, kestrels like to perch up high to keep an eye out for food. The best chance of spotting these birds is in open habitats like farm fields, meadows, grasslands and along roadsides. In the winter, males also take chances hunting in more forested areas. They will sit up on fenceposts and telephone poles searching for signs of prey. They have great eyesight with ultraviolet vision that lets them see urine, giving them a glowing trail to follow in search of a meal.

American kestrels are not just limited to sitting on fences and posts to search for a meal. They will fly into the wind and hover over a field below. This is unique because most birds of prey soar, flap or go straight in for a dive. Kestrels will fan out their tails to hold them in place until they are ready to make a move. Once they have a target, they will use their sharp talons to snatch an animal. If it’s on the bigger side, a kestrel’s hooked beak is designed to rip and tear the prey into bite-sized pieces.

Here's a video of a kestrel hovering in the wind. Watch until the end to see those talons and beak at work on an unlucky snake.

Insect buffet

Kestrels are smaller birds, so their diet mainly consists of smaller prey. Main entrees on the menu includes insects like grasshoppers, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies, moths and caterpillars.

These birds are not picky. Kestrels will also go after mice, voles, snakes and songbirds. Even though they are great hunters, they still must be on the lookout. They are hunted by bigger predators like great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, coyotes and more.

You can lend a helping hand

When nesting time comes, American kestrels are not builders. Instead they go house hunting for fixer-uppers like old woodpecker holes, natural tree cavities or nooks and crannies in buildings. The male will search and bring the female to look at the top choices. She will ultimately pick the nesting spot.

Even though kestrels are common, research shows their population is declining. It is getting harder and harder for the birds to find nesting sites as land is cleared and dead trees are removed. Plus, pesticides are making their insect-heavy diet harder to come by.

The North American Breeding Bird Survey reported a 51 percent decline in the kestrel population between 1966 and 2017. It estimated that if that trend continues, kestrels could lose another 50 percent of their popular by 2075. However, not all hope is lost.

We can help these birds by offering them homes to nest in. If you build nesting boxes to place in your yard, American kestrels may move in and repay the favor by keeping the nearby insect and rodent populations in check. For instructions and tips on building a nesting box for a kestrel, visit NestWatch.


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