American Kestrels are among Michigan’s most awesome, adventurous, and adaptable Avians. Here are some stupendous snippets about this swift, stealthy, and spectacular species:

Name Game: The scientific moniker for American Kestrels is Falco sparverius. The genus name is from the Latin ‘falx,’ meaning ‘a sickle,’ referring to the claws of the bird. Another common name for this common raptor is Sparrow Hawk. Other evocative nicknames include Windhover (after its hunting habits) and Killy Hawk (after its shrill call). Kestrels are one of four species of falcons found in Michigan, the other three being peregrine falcons, merlins, and gyrfalcons.

Distribution Data: Kestrels are the smallest and most common falcons in North America. In the Mitten State, they are widely distributed and rank right up there with red-tailed hawks as our most commonly occurring raptor. The MDNR estimates that we have a very stable population of kestrels making them a, “least concern” species in our fair state.

Alphabet Soup: For birders, photographers, and ornithologists alike it’s become increasingly more in vogue to refer to bird species with four letter alpha codes. The American kestrel is designated, therefore, as AMKE.

Plentiful Predators: As mentioned previously, these diminutive raptors are found in large numbers in their widespread range. However, estimates by the US Fish and Wildlife Service indicate an alarming decrease in kestrel numbers. Their populations have plummeted by almost 50% in North America and over 30% in our area. Disease, habitat loss, and death due to insidious rat poisons are the biggest culprits. Once again, and I’ve written about this plenty, I urge folks not to use rodent poisons as their unintentional effects have negatively impacted raptor numbers significantly!

This perching American kestrel shows off its brilliant colors and formidable hunting gear in the form of razor-sharp talons and beak. Copyright image Joni Roberts.

Vole Volumes: Kestrels are usually found in large numbers throughout their range but their populations are highly dependent upon the density of their favorite prey, voles. As a matter of fact, one scientific study from England found that kestrel numbers drastically declined when vole populations crashed. They also reported that kestrel home ranges broadened when vole numbers were low. This makes sense in that the birds had to widen their range to find what limited food was available.

Colorful Characters: Kestrels are among the loveliest of all bird species in the Great Lakes State. They have a small bullet-like head marked with black and white moustache-like marks on the sides. The bird’s wings are slender and pointed and are a blue-gray on males and brown on females. The back on both genders is rufous with noticeable barring and their breast plumage is a black speckled burnt-orange similar to that of a robin. Juveniles sport plumage similar to adults.

Urine my Sights: Utilizing a truly bizarre predatory technique, kestrels use their ability to see ultraviolet light to follow the urine trails left by voles! This unique tracking method is especially useful in low-light conditions.

Larger Ladies: Kestrels exhibit what’s known as sexual dimorphism in that females are moderately larger than their male counterparts. Both genders can reach a wingspan of 24 inches with the females weighing as much as 4.25 pounds while males stress the scale at up to 3.5 pounds. There’s also a wide range of sizes among the kestrels known 17 subspecies with members varying in size from about the weight of a blue jay to that of a mourning dove.

Good Die Young: Kestrels are short-lived birds with only about 5% living to be four years of age. The oldest wild bird on record was banded and probably needed to use a walker because it was almost 15 years old!

Mating Matters: Kestrels are monogamous during mating season and will often have the same partner for many successive years. Males pick the nesting site and go through a mating dance that often includes hovering, vocalizations, and food offerings to try to impress the female. Once she’s decided on her mate she’ll lay 4-5 eggs with an incubation period of 30 days. Both sexes tend to the young and a second brood may be laid if the first is lost for some reason.

Mascot Mentions: A school that is near and dear to me because it’s attended by many students once they leave my school is Monroe’s St. Mary’s Catholic Central who just happen to have the mascot name of, you guessed it, the Kestrels! Other notable teams with a falcon mascot include, of course, the Atlanta Falcons. Speaking of sports, kestrels are often spotted flying around in stadiums at night. They’re not looking for a game to watch but are drawn to the bright lights and open spaces.

Speedy Suckers: Kestrels are swift flyers that can reach up to 40 mph. That’s impressive but the true speed demons of the falcons are peregrines which can reach speeds of 55 mph horizontally and a sizzling 200 mph when diving!

Predator / Prey: Kestrels are highly-skilled predators with a variety of hunting techniques. They can often be seen hovering above prey by facing the wind and rapidly beating their wings before folding them and darting downward to snatch their unsuspecting prey. Kestrels also will dive-bomb prey or attack other birds that are in flight. They eat mostly mice, voles, and large insects but aren’t picky in that they also devour bats, small snakes, frogs, and even earthworms. On the other talon, kestrels are preyed upon by larger raptors including eagles, hawks, and owls.

Kestrel Caches: Unlike most other birds, kestrels sometimes hide prey in tree limbs, on fence posts, or in grass clumps. They return to this food in lean times when other food sources are scarce. They may also cache their food to keep it from the many thieving animals found in their habitats. But this behavior is reciprocated as kestrels are themselves skilled food robbers, sometimes being so brazen as to swoop in and take prey from the talons of other raptors, especially small owls or young hawks.

Eagle-like Eyes: Like most birds of prey kestrels have extraordinary eyesight. This allows them to spot their prey from great distances and ambush them, even at dark. Kestrels also have a keen sense of hearing that allows them to hear prey, despite them sometimes being out of sight. They have a commendable sense of smell as well, but not nearly as sharp as their hearing or eyesight.

Home Bodies: While some northern kestrel populations migrate south for the winter Michigan’s Falco sparverius are year-round residents. Interestingly, when not mating, female kestrels tend to prefer habitats consisting of open fields while males mostly choose more wooded environs.

Tightrope Talents: Kestrels often perch on power lines looking for prey. But, because of their size they are often passed over as just a mourning dove or pigeon who also exhibit this behavior. Look closely for their profiles and colorful plumage and you may find yourself in a continuous pursuit as they love to swoop to the next section of power line just as you get them in your binocular’s or camera’s sights!

Memorable Movie: I’d highly recommend the 1969 British film, “Kes,” about a bullied boy who takes up falconry and forms a special bond with a kestrel he names, Ke”! Despite its tough theme the film is filled with humor and hope and gives us all a glimpse into the relationship between this teenager and his beloved bird.

Those are some fabulously fascinating fun facts about American kestrels. With any luck you will happen across one on your wild adventures in the woods and on the waters of the Wolverine State!