American Kestrel

Maryland Birds

American Kestrel
(Falco sparverius)

Description and Range: Kestrel on branch by Steve Hillebrand, USFWS

American Kestrel males sport beautiful blue-gray wings, a rusty back and tail with a black terminal band, and black "whiskers" below each eye. Females have a rusty back, tail, and wings, all marked with black barring. The tops of their heads are blue with a rusty cap. Usually, the males have brighter colors than the females. Like other falcons, kestrels have long, pointed wings and an elongated tail to allow them to maneuver easily in the sky. American Kestrels are the smallest falcons found in North America with sizes similar to that of a blackbird. Despite their size and colorful markings, American Kestrels are fierce predators.

American Kestrels can be found year-round throughout much of the United States and parts of South America. Some populations also travel to Alaska, Canada, and the northern United States to breed while others travel to central America over the winter. The American Kestrel is Maryland's most common falcon. Kestrels are common, year-round residents throughout the state.

Habitat:

Kestrels are found in a variety of habitats including parks, suburbs, open fields and forest edges. Kestrels can easily adapt to urban environments, and sometimes, sports fans are treated to shows from these colorful birds attacking moths in the glow of stadium lights. In Maryland, males and females predominantly use open areas and edge habitats. Because of their preference for edge habitat, there are many places to nest in the Maryland area. To learn how to attract American kestrels, check out the Wild Acres page here.

 

Kestrel with prey by Bill Bouton, Wikimedia Commons 
 

 

Diet:

Kestrels feed on insects, small birds, lizards and rodents. Because they need a high perch for spotting their prey below, kestrels are commonly seen perching on telephone poles and wires. Once prey is spotted, kestrels usually hover before diving down to make the kill. Unlike other falcons, kestrels tend to capture their prey on the ground rather than in the air. They hunt primarily during the morning and late afternoon hours. Interestingly enough, kestrels receive most of their fluid intake from their diet, enabling them to live in the dry, arid conditions of the desert. Kestrels, like other birds, can also see ultraviolet light which allows them to see urine trails left by rodents. This enhanced eyesight helps lead them to tasty meals.

Reproduction:

Nesting begins in late March and extends through late August. Males establish a territory and attract females with flight displays and a song. While courting, the pair may exchange food gifts.

Kestrels nest in cavities selected by both the male and female. Since they are unable to construct their own cavities, kestrels rely on those excavated by woodpeckers, or they find nooks in buildings. Kestrels will also use artificial nest boxes. Once a site has been selected, kestrels lay three to five white eggs with small brown spots directly on the floor of the cavity. The eggs are incubated for about 30 days. During this time, the female relies on the male to supply food for her while she incubates the eggs. The young leave the nest about 30 days after hatching. Normally, only one brood is raised each year. Kestrels are considered good parents and diligently care for their young.

Sounds:

Surprisingly, American Kestrels do not have many vocalizations. The most common call they make sounds like a loud KLEE! KLEE! KLEE! or KILLY! Occasionally, while courting or feeding, American Kestrels may make a long whine and a fast chatter.

Behavior:

American Kestrels are most active by the day and often scan for prey from the same perch each day.

Did You Know?

Interestingly enough, birds can see ultraviolet light which allows predators like kestrels to track urine trails from voles and other prey species. In addition, despite their tough demeanor, American Kestrels are often preyed upon by larger raptor species such as Red-tailed Hawks.

Acknowledgements

  • Kestrel on branch by Steve Hillebrand, USFWS
  • Kestrel with prey by Bill Bouton, Wikimedia Commons