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The American Kestrel

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American Kestrel on the hunt. Creative Commons photo by Kevin Cole American Kestrel on the hunt. Creative Commons photo by Kevin Cole

Our smallest falcon from A Bird in Hand

Back in the day, most birders knew the American Kestrel as the Sparrow Hawk. This is not a bad name, considering that this bird does prey upon small birds, such as sparrows. But it is not really a hawk. More accurately, the kestrel is a type of falcon. Falcons differ from hawks in a number of ways, but the most distinctive is the wing structure. This gives falcons the same advantages that sports cars have over family sedans. Whereas hawks tend to have broad, wide wings, falcons have tapered units which give them the added agility needed to hunt in a three-dimensional space. That is, to hunt birds. Their other name, American, simply means the Western Hemisphere. While the American Kestrel is the only kestrel found in the New World, there are a number of different kestrel species elsewhere on the planet. 

Being a falcon doesn’t mean that the kestrel limits itself to birds. It doesn’t feel the need to conform to human conventions. It also enjoys eating grasshoppers, mice, and a variety of other terrestrial goodies. While hunting land-based prey, we will often see that famous kestrel ability to hover in space. It is one of the few bird species able to do this in calm air. Quite spectacular and distinctive.

If you see a little lone “hawk” sitting on a telephone line, it is probably a kestrel. The challenge comes in separating the male from the female. As is typical with birds of prey, and contrary to virtually every other type of bird specie, the female is larger than the male. This dimorphism in size probably allows the nesting pair to not compete against the other. After all, birds of prey are the apex predators in their dog-eat-dog world, which means that only a few of them can be supported in any particular area. Sort of like the Serengeti Plains: lots and lots of antelopes, but only a few lions. Therefore whenever raptors nest, they concentrate their hunting in a smaller area as they can’t wander about like they normally might. So the difference in size between the male and female effectively makes them able, as a pair, to exploit a greater variety of game in a smaller area. Make sense? He goes after smaller game, she can handle the bigger stuff, thus harmony at the nest. 

Kestrels are gorgeous little birds, perhaps the prettiest raptors in all the world. About the size of a robin, they are easy to identify. The dominant color of both sexes is rusty orange, called rufous in the birding community. Both birds will also be covered with a black checkered pattern superimposed over the rufous background. Simple enough. The male, on the other hand, will also have these ultra-chic, steel-grey colorations on his wings and his cap. In fact, this cool blue color actually covers the wings entirely, but this is not apparent on the sitting bird. Both birds also have white faces, but the face will be framed by both a black moustache and sideburns. She trades the blue cap for a rusty-red one. The breasts for any individual bird runs the range of white to a fawn color, and the degree of checkering is similarly variable. The underside of the wings are white and, again, with that black checkering. 

The only bird you might confuse a kestrel for is its bigger cousin, the Merlin. But the Merlin is less bright in coloration and a size bigger, say that of a very small crow. It is also more blue than rusty in color. Another noteworthy field mark: kestrels often bob their tails up and down while perched. Why? I have no idea. Maybe ADHD? 

Kestrels are our friends. They eat the voles that prey on your lettuce. They eat the grasshoppers that farmers dread. And they often eat English House Sparrows, a fact over which birders everywhere celebrate. They are good neighbors if you are fortunate enough to have one living nearby. Regardless, they are cool little falcons and a joy to see in the field. Happy birding! 

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birding, falcon, American Kestrel, sparrow hawk

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