American Kestrel

American kestrel(Falco sparverius)

Where does the American kestrel live?
The American kestrel has a huge range and occurs in a variety of habitats. Kestrels can live as far north as the Arctic Circle (Alaska and Northern Canada), as far south as Tierra del Fuego in South America, and almost everywhere in between. They are also found in parts of the West Indies, on Guadeloupe Island in Mexico, and the Juan Fernandez Islands off the coast of Chile. They can survive on terrain anywhere between below sea level and 3,700 m (12,000ft) in the Rockies and 4,300m (14,000ft) in the Andes.

What habitats do they prefer?
They need open ground for hunting, so they can live in mountain meadows, areas in early succession, marshlands, grasslands, savannas, deserts, open pine forests, mixed woods/grasslands, agricultural lands, vacant building sites in cities, airfields, athletic fields, cemeteries, powerline corridors, lake shores, and sea-coasts (Cade, 1982). American kestrels are cavity nesters, so they need either trees or artificial cavities. American kestrels are one of several species of raptors that has possibly benefited from deforestation for agriculture in North America because it makes their prey easier to find, and they have learned to thrive in a human dominated landscape.

Where did Warner Nature Center get this kestrel?
He came to us on August 22, 2002 from the Raptor Center in Saint Paul. Found on the ground after the tree his nest was in fell, he was taken and raised by an inexperienced human. After a few weeks, he was taken to the Raptor Center, but by that time he was already imprinted on humans. If the bird sees humans instead of kestrels in its early developmental stages, it learns to identify humans as its own species. The bird does not learn how to be a kestrel—it doesn't know how to hunt, mate, defend its territory, or do other things it would need to do in order to survive in the wild. Once a bird becomes imprinted, it cannot be released into the wild and must live in captivity for the rest of its life. This is not just a problem for kestrels; any animal can become imprinted if taken in by humans at an early age.

Is the kestrel at Warner Nature Center a male or female?
Both sexes of most raptors have similar plumage, so sex is determined by size and weight. Kestrels are an exception to this rule—we know our kestrel is a male because of his slate-colored wings and the generally more colorful body feathers. Females are more uniformly brown and rusty red and have darker horizontal bands on their tails.

How old is the captive American Kestrel at Warner Nature Center?
The kestrel will be seven years old in 2008.

How much does our American kestrel weigh?
The kestrel weighs about 100 (90-120) grams, or a little under 4 ounces. This is about how much two Snickers bars weigh. The American kestrel is the smallest falcon in North America and the second smallest in the world (the Seychelles kestrel is smaller).

What do American kestrels eat?
Kestrels eat insects, scorpions, earthworms, small reptiles, birds, and small mammals like bats. In the summer they eat more insects, and in the winter they feed on mostly rodents and birds. Their varied diet coupled with their wide range of suitable habitat makes them a particularly abundant raptor in both North and South America.

Do American kestrels make good pets?
No. While no wild animal is generally considered a good pet, humans take American kestrels out of the wild more often than they take other raptors because to us they look "cute," and their size makes them appear manageable. Actually, kestrels are quite aggressive; kestrels have been known to rob one another of food and harass larger raptors. Furthermore, even if the bird is imprinted on humans, American kestrels are not by their nature social birds, so they will not act any "friendlier" towards humans when they think we are their own species.

Do kestrels mate for life?
After an initial promiscuous phase, kestrels eventually choose one mate, and both the male and the female in the pair take turns incubating the eggs. They nest in tree cavities. Each pair lays 3-7 eggs per clutch, and the eggs hatch after a 30-day incubation period. The babies fledge after another 30 days. Kestrels are able to lay two clutches of eggs in one season if the first fails or if time permits a second batch.

What does a kestrel's call sound like?
The American kestrel has three basic vocalizations, the most common being the high-pitched "klee" or "killy." This call is used as a rapid series ("killy, killy, killy, killy") when the kestrel is upset or excited. Kestrels also have a "whine" and a "chitter" in their repertoire, and these are both used during male-female interactions such as courtship and copulation (Sibley, 2000).

How long does the American kestrel live?
The average age of a wild American kestrel is thought to be slightly under 3 years. The oldest wild bird on record was 11 years and 7 months old. In captivity American kestrels have lived up to 17 years.

Do other animals prey on the kestrel?
The American kestrel is often preyed on by other raptors including the red-tailed hawk, northern goshawk, Cooper's hawk, peregrine falcon, barn owl, and great horned owl.

How many American kestrels are there?
It is estimated that there are more than 1.2 million pairs of American kestrels in North America during the breeding season, and the Central and South American populations are thought to be just as large.

How many different kinds of falcons are there?
World: 63, and 13 of these are kestrels.
Minnesota: 5, and only 1 of these is a kestrel

The five falcons of Minnesota are the merlin, prairie falcon, American kestrel, gyrfalcon, and peregrine falcon.

What are the black spots on the kestrel's head for?
Scientists speculate that the dark patches under the kestrel's eyes serve the same purpose as the black smudges athletes often put on their face before playing outdoors—the black pigment absorbs bright sunlight so it does not reflect back up in to the athlete's or the kestrel's eyes. The dark spots on the back of the kestrels head are thought to serve an entirely different purpose than the ones below the eyes. When a predator sees the kestrel's head, the black spots might serve as "false eyes," thus fooling the predator into thinking the back of the head is the face.

If you see a bird in the sky, how can you tell that it's a falcon?
Falcons typically have pointy, long wings, round heads, and fast flight (Sibley, 2000).

What qualifies a bird as a raptor?
Many birds such as crows, robins and woodpeckers eat other animals, but it is the special adaptations that raptors have that sets them apart.

All birds of prey have special tools to hunt down and kill their prey; the similarity of the tools is what ties them together.

  • Talons - sharp claw-like toenails evolved for quickly killing prey though piercing and crushing.
  • Beak - a hook shaped beak evolved for tearing apart flesh and muscle.
  • Eyesight - extremely good eyesight for hunting animals from high vantage points such as treetops or while soaring.

Raptors are grouped into five types: Eagles, Hawks, Vultures, Owls and Falcons

There are also some raptors that don't technically fall into any of these groups; among them are the kites, the osprey, and the northern harrier.

As you can see, the term raptor is a loose one based more on behavior and appearance than actual genetic relationships.

How do American kestrels hunt and kill their prey?
The American kestrel has the ability to hover in the air as it searches for food on the ground. However, they more commonly hunt from perches, which is why they are often seen perched on telephone poles and wires. Like all raptors, kestrels swoop down and catch their prey with their feet; however, while other raptors use their powerful talons to kill their prey, falcons have a "tooth" on either side of their beak used for snapping the spinal cord of a bird, rodent, or reptile.

Do American kestrels migrate?
Kestrels living in the northern and southern-most parts of their range tend to migrate in search of food. However, some kestrels in these areas will not migrate for the winter; whether or not they stay depends on the strength and hunting skills of the individual bird and the severity of the weather. Typically, kestrels living closer to the equator in tropical latitudes stay there year round.

Do you need a permit to keep an American kestrel?
WNC doesn't own this bird. It is a wild animal that lives in captivity, and it is illegal to have an American kestrel or any other raptor without a permit. We have federal and state permits that say we know how to care for this bird and are allowed to have it. How fast can an American kestrel fly? American kestrels can go up to 40 miles per hour for short bursts of flight, but their sustainable migration speed is around 24 mph.

How have people impacted American kestrel populations?
Human dominated landscapes have been beneficial to American kestrels because kestrels like to hunt over farm fields. Also, rodents tend to prosper near human habitations. We have turned forests and tall grass prairies into open fields that make great hunting grounds. American kestrels also respond well to nest box programs, and this tactic has been used in cases where the bird is locally threatened.

Do American kestrels prefer food dead or alive?
American kestrels prefer live food. When a raptor is first taken to The Raptor Center, the handlers make an incision in the mouse or gopher so the bird will visually key in on the blood and learn to eat dead food.

Do American kestrels need to drink water?
Most raptors get enough moisture from their food. Like other birds, they do like water and use it to clean their feathers.

What sort of health problems do raptors face?
Health problems are surprisingly similar for birds and people. Their circulation gets worse as they age, and they can suffer from cataracts and arthritis. In captivity birds have foot problems because they are sitting so much. A new threat for raptors is the West Nile Virus carried by mosquitoes. At Warner Nature Center our birds live outdoors so we have put up special insect netting to keep their living area as mosquito free as possible.

Is it OK to return a baby bird to a nest?
A bird's sense of smell is poor except in vultures. It is OK to put a baby bird back into a nest. The parents will not abandon it. However, if you find a healthy baby bird on the ground it is likely that it is being taken care of by its parents. Watch carefully from a distance and you will eventually see an adult bring the baby food. Birds are best left alone. On the other hand, if you see an injured bird on the ground, it may be best to contact the Raptor Center or another bird hospital to determine the best plan of action.

Do American kestrels regurgitate pellets?
Although pellets are most closely associated with owls, all raptors regurgitate pellets on a regular basis. When raptors eat animals they eat many indigestible parts such as bones and fur. These items are regurgitated or cast up as a pellet. Pellets can be found in the forest and dissected to determine what was eaten.

Why are kestrels beneficial to humans?
They are often considered valuable cohabitators because they eat many of the animals we consider pests.

Why were American kestrels formerly called sparrow hawks?
Kestrels have been called sparrow hawks in the past because they sometimes eat sparrows. The name was abandoned for two reasons: not only does the American kestrel eat a varied diet mostly comprised of animals other than sparrows, but it's not a hawk—hawk is often used as a general term for a bird of prey, but technically the kestrel is a falcon.

Why do American kestrels pump their tails and bob their heads when they sit?
These behaviors are not fully understood, but there is evidence showing that they might be pre-flight/pre-attack motions.

The information above is common scientific knowledge. For a list of specific resources, visit the Animal FAQ Resources page.

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