Photo: Alberto Lopez/Audubon Photography Awards

American Kestrel

Falco sparverius

Our smallest falcon, the kestrel is also the most familiar and widespread in North America. In open country it is commonly seen perched on roadside wires, or hovering low over a field on rapidly beating wings, waiting to pounce on a grasshopper. Kestrels nest in cavities in trees; in places where there are few large dead snags to provide nest sites, they may rely on nesting boxes put up for them by conservationists.
Conservation status Counts of migrants suggest declining numbers in the northeast in recent years, but numbers elsewhere still healthy. Providing of nest boxes has helped populations in some areas.
Family Falcons
Habitat Open country, farmland, cities, wood edges. Inhabits any kind of open or semi-open situation, from forest clearings to farmland to desert, wherever it can find adequate prey and some raised perches. In breeding season, may be limited to habitats that also provide appropriate nesting sites. In winter, females may tend to be found in more open habitats than males.
Our smallest falcon, the kestrel is also the most familiar and widespread in North America. In open country it is commonly seen perched on roadside wires, or hovering low over a field on rapidly beating wings, waiting to pounce on a grasshopper. Kestrels nest in cavities in trees; in places where there are few large dead snags to provide nest sites, they may rely on nesting boxes put up for them by conservationists.
Photo Gallery
  • adult male
  • adult female
  • adult female
  • adult female
  • adult male
  • adult male
Feeding Behavior

Hunts mostly by watching from a high perch, then swooping down to capture prey. Sometimes, especially when no good perch available, hovers over fields to watch for prey. May pursue and catch insects, birds, or bats in flight. Individual kestrels often specialize on one particular kind of prey.


Eggs

4-6, rarely 2-7. White to pale brown, usually spotted with brown and gray. Incubation is by both parents, usually 28-31 days. Young: Female remains with young most of time at first, while male brings food; after 1-2 weeks, female hunts also. Age of young at first flight about 28-31 days. Parents continue to feed young up to 12 days after fledging; later, these juveniles may gather in groups with young from other nests.


Young

Female remains with young most of time at first, while male brings food; after 1-2 weeks, female hunts also. Age of young at first flight about 28-31 days. Parents continue to feed young up to 12 days after fledging; later, these juveniles may gather in groups with young from other nests.

Diet

Mostly large insects; also some small mammals, birds, reptiles. Grasshoppers are among the favored prey, but many other large insects are taken, including beetles, dragonflies, moths, caterpillars, others. Also feeds on mammals (including voles, mice, and sometimes bats), small birds (sometimes up to the size of quail), lizards, frogs, earthworms, spiders, crayfish, other items.


Nesting

During courtship displays, female flies slowly with stiff, fluttering wingbeats, the wings held just below horizontal. Male repeatedly flies high, calling, and then dives. Male brings food for female, passes it to her in flight. Nest site is in cavity, usually in dead tree or snag, sometimes in dirt bank or cliff, or in old magpie nest. In southwest, often in holes in giant cactus. Also uses artificial nest boxes. Sites usually 10-30' up, but may be at any height.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Migration

Many kestrels in southern or middle latitudes are permanent residents, while northern birds may migrate far to the south. Young birds may tend to migrate farther than adults.

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Migration

Many kestrels in southern or middle latitudes are permanent residents, while northern birds may migrate far to the south. Young birds may tend to migrate farther than adults.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Shrill killy-killy-killy.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.