American kestrel (Falco sparverius)

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American kestrel male with wings outstreched
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST
CONCERN

Top facts

  • The American kestrel is the only kestrel in the western hemisphere.
  • The American kestrel is America’s smallest falcon.
  • There are thought to be 17 different subspecies of the American kestrel, each varying in colour and size.
  • The American kestrel is found throughout the Americas in almost every type of habitat. Its population and range are increasing.
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American kestrel fact file

American kestrel description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderFalconiformes
FamilyFalconidae
GenusFalco (1)

Not only is the American kestrel (Falco sparverius) one of the most abundant raptors in the Americas, but this diminutive bird of prey is also the only kestrel in the western hemisphere (4) (5). This colourful kestrel displays marked sexual dimorphism, and there is also considerable variation between individuals. Typically, the male has an orange back, flecked with black, a solid red tail with a wide, black tip, blue-grey wings and head cap, and black markings on the face and belly. The larger female, however, lacks the blue-grey markings and has barred, brown upperparts and streaked underparts (2) (4) (6).

This kestrel has rather short legs and toes, long, pointed wings and a compact, curved bill (4). Astonishingly, there are thought to be 17 different subspecies of the American kestrel, with each varying in colour and size. The Cuban subspecies, Falco sparverius sparverioides, is the most distinctive, with two colour morphs; one is dark with red underparts, and the other with white underparts (2).  

Also known as
American sparrowhawk, Antillean sparrow hawk, Cuban sparrow hawk, Florida sparrow hawk, Guatemalan sparrow hawk, Hispaniolan sparrow hawk, San Lucas sparrow hawk, sparrow hawk.
Synonyms
Cerchneis sparverius.
Size
Head-body length: 21 - 31 cm (2)
Wingspan: 51 - 61 cm (2)
Male weight: 80 - 143 g (2)
Female weight: 84 - 165 g (2)
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American kestrel biology

The American kestrel prefers to hunt from an exposed perch, which offers a vantage point over open areas, from which it spots its prey using its acute eyesight (2). Once its prey has been targeted, this sit-and-wait predator swoops down towards the ground to catch it in its talons, and kills the prey with bites to the head or neck (2) (4). It feeds mainly on large insects and small rodents in North America, but may feed more upon lizards in tropical regions. The American kestrel is also equally adept at catching flying prey out in the air and, like most other kestrels, also commonly hovers above the ground (2). Once captured, its prey may be eaten straight away, taken back to its perch and consumed, or cached for periods of unfavourable weather when hunting opportunities are limited (2) (4)

Solitary for most of the year, the monogamous American kestrel forms breeding pairs between March and July in North America, with the timing of breeding varying across its range (2) (4). Like other true falcons (genus Falco), nests are not built, but old holes in trees, banks or cliffs or old magpie stick-nests are reused. In the northern hemisphere four to six white eggs with dense brown spots are laid, while in the Caribbean two to four are laid (2) (4). The eggs are incubated for around 28 to 32 days and the chicks will fledge after some 30 to 38 days in the nest. The young adults may breed from a year old, and this species has a life expectancy of almost ten years (2).

It is after the breeding season that many American kestrels migrate to spend winter in areas with higher food abundance. Birds at northern latitudes and juveniles tend to migrate significant distances, while birds in more tropical regions may remain fairly resident in the same area year-round (4). Populations in Alaska and Canada may migrate as far as Panama and the Caribbean islands, and those birds breeding on Tierra del Fuego may migrate northwards to the South American mainland (4) (5).

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American kestrel range

The American kestrel is widespread throughout the Americas, from central Alaska and Canada, south discontinuously through the United States and Central America, to most of South America, excluding Amazonia. It is also found throughout the West Indies. During the breeding season, birds may be absent from some areas, due to a lack of large trees with nesting cavities, particularly in Mexico and Central America. During the winter, those birds at the most northerly and southerly latitudes may migrate towards more temperate or tropical regions (4).

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American kestrel habitat

The American kestrel is found in almost every habitat within its large range, including tropical lowlands, urban areas and deserts, up to an altitude of around 3,700 metres in North America and 4,300 metres in South America (2). However, it is most abundant in lowland areas and open country with sparse trees or pylons, which provide roosts when it is foraging (5) (6).

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American kestrel status

The American kestrel is classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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American kestrel threats

Perhaps the commonest New World falconiform, the American kestrel is increasing in population and range (2). Some 1,200,000 breeding pairs are found in North America alone, with similarly large populations found in both Central and South America (2) (4) (7). This raptor, which prefers to forage over open habitat, has benefited from deforestation and wetland drainage across much of its range, particularly in Amazonia and in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. It is also relatively tolerant of human disturbance and, consequently, readily occupies urban areas and nest boxes (2) (4).

However, the American kestrel is in decline in parts of its range, most notably in eastern North America. The cause of this decline is unknown, but is likely due to a combination of contamination by toxic chemicals and pesticides, loss of habitat to reforestation, disease, and increased predation by other raptors (4) (5). It also occupies areas that are used for recreational hunting, and may be shot or trapped, and is also regularly killed in road collisions (4).

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American kestrel conservation

Although the American kestrel is not the focus of any specific conservation measures, it is found in a number of protected areas across its large range. Future priorities for the conservation of this species include further research into the effects of toxic contaminants and pesticides on its breeding success, behaviour and development (4).

ARKive is supported by OTEP, a joint programme of funding from the UK FCO and DFID which provides support to address priority environmental issues in the Overseas Territories, and Defra
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Find out more

For more information on the American kestrel, see:

To find out more about bird conservation in the Americas, see:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

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This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Genus
A category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
Incubate
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
Monogamous
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
Morph
One of two or more distinct types of a given species, often distinct colour forms, which occur in the same population at the same time (that is, are not geographical or seasonal variations).
Sexual dimorphism
When males and females of the same species differ in appearance.
Subspecies
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2010)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 2:  New World Vultures To Guineafowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. CITES (June, 2010)
    http://www.cites.org/
  4. Smallwood, J.A. and Bird, D.M. (2002) American kestrel (Falco sparverius), Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Birds of North America Online.
  5. The Global Raptor Information Network (June, 2010)
    http://www.globalraptors.org/grin/SpeciesResults.asp?specID=8092
  6. Neotropical Birds (June, 2010)
    http://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/portal/species/overview?p_p_spp=132916
  7. BirdLife International (June, 2010)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=3596&m=0
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Image credit

American kestrel male with wings outstreched  
American kestrel male with wings outstreched

© Tom & Pat Leeson / www.ardea.com

Ardea wildlife pets environment
59 Tranquil Vale
London
SE3 0BS
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 208 318 1401
ardea@ardea.co.uk
http://www.ardea.com

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