Nankeen kestrel (Falco cenchroides)

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Nankeen kestrel perched on rock
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST
CONCERN

Top facts

  • The nankeen kestrel is one of the smallest birds of prey in Australia, and also one of the most abundant.
  • The male nankeen kestrel can be distinguished from the female by its smaller size and grey head and tail.
  • An isolated subspecies of the nankeen kestrel is found only in high-altitude mountain valleys in central Irian Jaya, New Guinea.
  • Like other kestrels, the nankeen kestrel characteristically hovers while hunting, beating its wings rapidly while keeping its head and body still.
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Nankeen kestrel fact file

Nankeen kestrel description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderFalconiformes
FamilyFalconidae
GenusFalco (1)

One of Australia’s smallest bird of prey (3) (5), the nankeen kestrel (Falco cenchroides) is a relatively slender bird with long, pointed wings and a fairly long tail that has a rounded tip (2). The adult male nankeen kestrel has reddish-brown upperparts with a few dark streaks and spots, as well as a grey rump and whitish to buff underparts with fine black streaking. The tips of the wings are black and the undersides of the wings are faintly barred, while the tail is grey except for a single black band and a whitish tip (2) (3) (5) (6). The top of the male nankeen kestrel’s head is usually grey, and the cheeks are greyish-white with narrow dark ‘moustache’ stripes (2) (3).

The female nankeen kestrel is generally larger than the male (2) (5) (6) (7), and is usually reddish-brown rather than grey on the head, rump and tail (2) (3) (5) (6). Females of this species also tend to be more heavily streaked with black than the males, and have several dark bars on the tail in addition to the large black band near the tip (2) (3) (5). The juvenile nankeen kestrel resembles the adult female, but is more streaked and has clearer, more numerous bars on the tail (2) (3).

The nankeen kestrel has dark brown eyes, a yellow cere and a yellow ring around each eye. This species’ legs and feet are also yellow (2) (3). Juvenile nankeen kestrels have a pale grey cere and eye ring, which gradually change to yellow as the bird matures (3).

Two subspecies of nankeen kestrel are usually recognised, with Falco cenchroides baru being slightly larger than Falco cenchroides cenchroides and having a darker grey head and tail in the male (2). The nankeen kestrel can sometimes be confused with the brown falcon (Falco berigora), but is smaller, has richer reddish-brown plumage, lacks brown on the thighs, and has a single rather than double dark mark on the cheeks (2) (3) (6).

The nankeen kestrel is quite a vocal bird, particularly during the breeding season. Its most common call is a rapid, shrill ‘keek-keek-keek’ or ‘keekeekee’, and it also gives a high-pitched trembling scream and a thin, upslurred squeal (2) (3).

Also known as
Australian kestrel.
Size
Length: 26 - 35 cm (2) (3)
Wingspan: 59 - 78 cm (2) (3)
Male weight: 121 - 195 g (2)
Female weight: 115 - 273 g (2)
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Nankeen kestrel biology

Like other kestrels, the nankeen kestrel characteristically hovers while hunting, keeping the body horizontal and the head still as it scans for prey. When prey is spotted, the kestrel drops towards the ground until it is near enough to strike (2) (3) (5) (6). The diet of the nankeen kestrel includes a variety of small mammals, birds, reptiles and insects, and it also takes centipedes and spiders (2) (3) (5) (6) (9). As well as hovering, the nankeen kestrel also hunts by swooping onto prey from a perch, and it sometimes catches insects and even birds in the air (2) (3) (6).

The nankeen kestrel is usually found alone or in breeding pairs, but larger numbers occasionally gather where there is an abundance of food, such as during plagues of mice or locusts (2). Individuals sometimes perform territorial displays that involve glides on slightly drooped wings, interspersed with burst of rapid, shallow wing beats, often with the body tilted to alternate sides to produce flashes of the dark upperparts or white underparts (2) (3).

Breeding pairs of nankeen kestrels perform aerial courtship displays, and the male also brings food to the female as part of courtship (2) (3). The breeding season of this small falcon runs from around July to February, peaking between September and December (2), and pairs often mate for life (5) (6).

The nankeen kestrel nests in a variety of locations, from tree hollows, cliff ledges and urban buildings to the old stick nest of another bird (2) (3) (6). This species has even been known to nest below ground in sink-holes and mine shafts (2) (3). Except when it uses an old stick nest, the nankeen kestrel generally lays its eggs in a simple depression or scrape (3) (6), sometimes adding bits of bark or rotting wood (2).

The clutch size of the nankeen kestrel varies from one to six eggs, with three to five being more usual (2) (3). The eggs hatch after 26 to 29 days and the young kestrels leave the nest at 28 to 35 days old (2), although they remain dependent on the adults for up to 2 more months (3). The female nankeen kestrel performs most of the incubation of the eggs, while the male brings most of the food to the nest (6). The nankeen kestrel usually raises only one brood each year (6), and the young reach sexual maturity at about a year old (3).

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Nankeen kestrel range

The nankeen kestrel is found across Australia, including Tasmania, as well as in Papua New Guinea and on offshore islands such as Lord Howe Island, Norfolk Island (2) (3) (8) and Barrow Island (5). This species also breeds on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean (2) (3) (8), and is occasionally seen in the Lesser Sundas and Aru Islands, New Zealand, and west to Bali and Java (2) (3). The subspecies F. c. baru occurs in an isolated population in the Snow Mountains of central Irian Jaya, New Guinea (2) (3).

Although the nankeen kestrel is resident year-round in many areas, some populations are partially migratory or nomadic, undertaking seasonal movements or moving around in relation to rainfall, drought or food availability (2) (6) (7).

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Nankeen kestrel habitat

The nankeen kestrel is typically found in open or lightly wooded areas, particularly farmland with scattered trees (2) (3) (6). It can also be found in urban areas (2).

Some nankeen kestrels migrate to southern New Guinea for the winter, where they often occur in grassland or savanna. The isolated subspecies F. c. baru occurs in high-altitude mountain valleys, at elevations of 3,200 to 3,800 metres (2).

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Nankeen kestrel status

The nankeen kestrel is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and is listed on Appendix II of CITES (4).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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Nankeen kestrel threats

The nankeen kestrel is a widespread and abundant species, and is not currently considered to be globally threatened (8). It is believed to be one of Australia’s two most numerous birds of prey (2), and its numbers have increased as it has benefitted from the clearance of forests and the introduction of new prey species such as mice and the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) (2) (3) (8).

This adaptable falcon has colonised Lord Howe Island, Norfolk Island and Christmas Island relatively recently, and it is thought that it may also be colonising New Zealand (3).

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Nankeen kestrel conservation

Within Australia, the nankeen kestrel is listed as a protected species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (10). This widespread bird of prey is also listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that any international trade in this species or its parts should be carefully controlled (4).

There are not known to be any other specific conservation measures currently targeted towards the nankeen kestrel.

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Find out more

Find out more about the nankeen kestrel and its conservation:

Find out more about the birds of Barrow Island, Australia:

More information on conservation in Australia:

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Authentication

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

Cere
In birds, an area of skin at the base of the upper mandible of the beak, surrounding the nostrils.
Incubation
The act of incubating eggs; that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
Nomadic
A species which roams irregularly from place to place in search of food and water, without returning to a fixed location.
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.
Territorial
Describes an animal, a pair of animals or a colony that occupies and defends an area.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Ferguson-Lees, J. and Christie, D.A. (2001) Raptors of the World. Helm Identification Guides, A&C Black Publishers, London.
  3. Debus, S. (2012) Birds of Prey of Australia: A Field Guide. Second Edition. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
  4. CITES (November, 2012)
    http://www.cites.org/
  5. Moro, D. and MacAulay, I. (2010) A Guide to the Birds of Barrow Island. Chevron Australia, Perth. Available at:
    http://www.chevronaustralia.com/environment/protectingenvironment/nature-books.aspx
  6. Birds in Backyards - Nankeen kestrel (November, 2012)
    http://www.birdsinbackyards.net/species/Falco-cenchroides
  7. Olsen, P.D. and Olsen, J. (1987) Movements and measurements of the Australian kestrel Falco cenchroides. Emu, 87: 35-41.
  8. BirdLife International - Nankeen kestrel (November, 2012)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=3595
  9. Olsen, P. Vestjens, W.J.M. and Olsen, J. (1979) Observations on the diet of the Australian kestrel Falco cenchroides. Emu, 79: 133-138.
  10. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (2012) Falco cenchroides. In: Species Profile and Threats Database. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra. Available at:
    http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=928
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Image credit

Nankeen kestrel perched on rock  
Nankeen kestrel perched on rock

© Gianpiero Ferrari / www.flpa-images.co.uk

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