Be Your Own Birder

Bird of the Week: American Kestrel

When you want razor-sharp focus and a ferocious attitude in a small package, you can’t go wrong with this week’s featured bird – the American kestrel is an amazing raptor that has many advantages over its larger cousins. Who says good things don’t come in small packages?

American Kestrel

American Kestrel – Photo by USFWS/Susan Drobniak

Name: American Kestrel
Scientific Name: Falco sparverius
Scientific Family: Falconidae (Falcons and Caracaras)

Habitat: American kestrels prefer open country such as agricultural fields, rural roadways, pastures, deserts and meadows, but are also occasionally found in suburban areas where open yards simulate their natural preferred habitat. Habitats with plentiful perches – including wires, poles and snags – are ideal for these raptors, who often perch as they watch for prey.

Range: These birds are widespread from the continental United States through the Caribbean to South America year-round, though they are absent from the densest jungle regions of the Amazon basin as well as coastal regions of Central America. In summer, their northern range extends into much of Canada and Alaska as well, and in winter, they do spread out to include coastal Central America.

While most birds of prey are clad in neutral tones of brown, black, gray and white, American kestrels are one of the more colorful falcons. Males have a rich rusty-red back and tail with slate blue wings. The wingtips are black and show white spotting in flight, while the underparts are paler buff with a chestnut wash on the breast and a gray-blue wash on the flanks. The underparts also show black spotting, as does the back and wings. The tail has a thick black band bordering the thin white tip. The white face is topped with a slate-blue crown and black vertical bars. Females are just as colorful but look quite different from males, with more muted head colors and markings. Both their back and wings are rich rusty-red with black barring. Females have more red-brown on the breast and less dark spotting on their underparts, and their tail is barred and lacks the thick black band.

Though small at only 10 inches long – about the same size as an American robin or northern mockingbird – these birds pack a powerful punch. They may not be able to take down large prey like many hawks and eagles, but their sharp talons and piercing bills are ideal for hunting large insects, mice, small snakes and other delicious tidbits. What makes their hunting ability even more amazing, however, are their rapid wing beats that allow them to hover as they seek out prey. Once spotted, these falcons fold their wings and dive onto the unsuspecting morsel in a burst of feathered fury, and after a successful capture, they’ll return to a perch for a more leisurely meal.

I’ve been fortunate to see American kestrels many times and in many locations – including, just this past Sunday, as my most recent yard bird (that was the burst of feathered fury as a proud male got himself an anole for breakfast). They always seem to have a bit of an attitude, though that’s understandable given their tiny size and how they aren’t often given the same credit for predatory skill as their larger and more stately relatives. Yet they’re well worth watching, not only for their hunting prowess and beautiful colors, but because they can teach us just a bit more about the wonderful world of avifauna and all its amazingness.

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