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What is an American Kestrel?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2016
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An American kestrel is a small falcon native to the Americas. These birds have a range from the northern regions of Canada all the way down to Tierra Del Fuego and they are of low concern to conservationists because their populations are large, stable, and highly adaptable. Many birders in the Americas have a chance to see American kestrels during birding trips and because these birds have been known to settle in urban environments, even city dwellers may encounter them.

The scientific name for the American kestrel is Falco sparverius. These birds are also known by the common name “sparrow hawk,” although this is a bit of a misnomer because the birds do not hunt sparrows and are not related to other birds referred to with this common name. Genetic research has suggested that the American kestrel is not even technically a kestrel, and in fact has genetically diverged from true kestrels.

The American kestrel is one of the smallest falcon species, about the size of a robin. The males have very colorful plumage that includes reddish and orange tones, bluish-gray markings, creamy underbellies, and distinctive black barring on the wings and tails. Females tend to have somewhat duller coloration.

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American kestrels eat insects and small animals. They are solitary birds, preferring to live alone in their territory and sometimes becoming extremely defensive. Kestrels call with a “kee kee kee” noise that is usually repeated several times, and they hunt from above. The birds can perch and wait for prey to pass by or hover in thermal currents to keep an eye out for movements on the ground.

During mating season, American kestrels will pair up and participate cooperatively in incubating eggs and raising young. The birds will nest in cavities and openings ranging from natural holes in trees to the eaves of houses and they are quite adaptable when it comes to living in hostile environments. American kestrel nests have been spotted in a variety of unlikely locations, including nests abandoned by other bird species.

Apprentice falconers often work with American kestrels because they are plentiful and the law limits the types of birds that people learning falconry can work with. Managing these birds can be somewhat challenging in comparison with other species because of their small size and sensitivity, but they tame quickly and can provide falconers with valuable training in learning how to handle and train a hunting bird. Prey species for falconers working with American kestrels include small birds and amphibians.

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