American Kestrel

Falco sparverius
Population status:
Least Concern
Body length:
20-30 cm (8–12 in)
50–60 cm (20–24 in)
85-170 g (3–6 oz)
American Kestrel perched

Donald DeDonato

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Did you know?

  • The American Kestrel is the smallest falcon in North America. Weighing 3-6 ounces, a small kestrel weighs the same as about 34 pennies.
  • American Kestrels often hunt as a family group. This gives the young birds a chance to practice their hunting skills with their parents before they have to survive on their own.
  • American Kestrels are one of only three raptor species in North America where males and females look very different from each other. Males have blue-hued wings and one black bar on their orange tail feathers; females have orange wings with black stripes and many black bars on their orange tail feathers.


Other Falcons

How The Peregrine Fund is helping

The Peregrine Fund started the American Kestrel Partnership (AKP) in 2012 to recruit a network of professional and community scientists to contribute to kestrel science and conservation. By February 2024, this collective had grown to more than 2,400 birders, scientists, families, teachers, students, and other wildlife enthusiasts. One of the AKP's most public-facing projects was its community science program, which saw AKP partners register over 5,200 kestrel boxes from Alaska to Argentina and submitted over 60,000 observations of breeding activity to the AKP's centralized database. Researchers are able to use this massive database to understand how environmental factors like pollution, climate change, predators, and habitat loss affect the kestrel’s ability to reproduce on a continent-wide scale. In February 2024, this community science program was merged with Cornell Lab of Ornithology's NestWatch, streamlining data accessibility for researchers and providing partners with an established data management system backed by one of the world leaders in community science. Read more about this transition here.

We partner with researchers at Boise State University (BSU) to support the Southern Idaho American Kestrel Nest Box Project through our Adopt-a-Box program. Adopt-a-Box allows members of the public to symbolically adopt a kestrel box monitored by BSU researchers in Idaho's Treasure Valley. Adopters receive a host of perks including updates on the kestrel family that takes up residence in their box, while adoption fees support both the BSU research program and our other kestrel conservation work. Learn more and adopt a box today.

Outside of the breeding season, we provide equipment, staff, and financial support to a team from the University of North Texas (UNT) to aid their research on wintering kestrels. Texas is one of the main wintering grounds for northern kestrels, and the UNT team fits birds with alphanumeric leg bands and GPS trackers to reveal where these individuals travel during the summer, as well as how many survive each winter and from year-to-year. The team aims to uncover the "when" and the "where" of kestrel decline, identifying where on the globe, what time of year, and at what age kestrels are most at risk. These will yield important clues as to the "why," allowing targeted protection efforts.

Learn more about The Peregrine Fund's work with American Kestrels.

Where they live

If you find yourself along a roadside or open area, take a moment to look for a small colorful bird. Chances are good that you eventually will see an American Kestrel. They are most easily spotted perched on power lines as they scan for dinner, bobbing their tails occasionally. You also may see them sitting atop a power pole eating a meal or hovering over an open field, waiting for the right moment to descend upon an unsuspecting insect or rodent.

American Kestrels are found throughout most of North America, Central America, and South America. In their northern range, they are found in Canada and Alaska during the summer breeding season. As winter sets in, they head for warmer climes. Much of their prey hibernates or leaves during the cold winter months, so they must travel to where the food is. American Kestrels usually spend the winter south of the Canadian border and travel as far south as Panama and the Caribbean. They can be found in a wide variety of habitats, including grasslands, agricultural fields, desert, tropical lowlands, and even suburban and urban areas. If there are sufficient perches like power lines and trees, good nesting cavities, and abundant prey, chances are kestrels will be there too.

What they do

The American Kestrel is one of the most beautiful falcons in North America. Its feather patterns of blues, reds, grays, browns, and blacks make this small bird of prey a real eye-catcher! Apart from their good looks, American Kestrels are also swift fliers with astounding aerobatic abilities.

Kestrels, like a few other birds of prey, are very good at hovering. With the help of a good headwind, kestrels can flap their wings vigorously and maneuver their tail to stay in one spot, like a helicopter in mid-air, while searching the ground for prey. Though it is a small bird, the kestrel needs strength, agility, and stamina to maintain this static flight. When you see kestrels in flight, notice how their wings, tail feathers, heads, bodies and even feet all change shape and direction to help this amazing bird achieve such aerial feats.

If you have the opportunity to watch a kestrel in flight, enjoy it! You may see it dive in a deep stoop and perhaps catch a meal.

Why they need our help

The American Kestrel is still one of the most widespread raptors in North America, but this does not mean everything is rosy for the species. Studies show that since the 1960s, the kestrel population in North America has declined by nearly 50%, with rates of decline as high as 93% in some local geographic regions. More concerning—no one really knows why.  When a once common animal starts to become not-so-common, action needs to be taken.

Potential causes may include loss of habitat, increased predation by other birds of prey, pesticides or other chemicals, and competition for nesting sites from species like the European Starling that were not historically found in North America but were brought here by people. Recent research has indicated that rather than one single cause, a complex interplay of factors is likely responsible, with kestrels in various regions responding differently to similar threats or facing different threats altogether. 

The first step in helping the kestrel is understanding why they are declining in the first place. For more information and to learn how you can help, please visit The Peregrine Fund’s American Kestrel project page.

What they eat

American Kestrels feed mainly on insects, mice, voles, lizards, and snakes, making this bird a very good friend to farmers! Like the Barn Owl and many other birds of prey, American Kestrels help keep agricultural fields free of animals that might damage crops.

When hunting, American Kestrels search for prey from a perch overlooking an open area or by hovering in the air. When a kestrel spots its prey, it plunges down, in what's called a stoop, to catch it. Kestrels usually capture their prey on the ground, though they can also take prey in the air. After catching their prey, kestrels will carry it up to a perch (such as a power line or fence post) from which they can comfortably eat. Being up high keeps them away from ground predators, though they still have to watch out for other birds that might attack them or steal their catch.

Nest, eggs and young

Like other falcons, kestrels don’t build their own nests. Instead, they lay their eggs in cavities in trees, cacti, and cliffs. They also nest in nesting boxes made by people or in crevices in buildings. It is important to note that even though kestrels nest in tree cavities, they are unable to make these cavities themselves. They rely on the work of other birds, such as woodpeckers, to provide them with good sites! They also readily use human-made nest boxes, making them a fairly easy species to study during the breeding season.

American Kestrels, like many birds of prey, are solitary, meaning they spend most of their time alone. The exception to this is during breeding season. The male and female spend a lot of time together during courtship and breeding and while raising young. During courtship, a male kestrel brings the female gifts, but she isn't interested in flowers or chocolates. She finds headless mice or dead lizards much more appealing!

Females usually lay four to six eggs that are white with brown spots. The final egg is usually lighter in color than the others, which is thought to be due to the female being strapped for resources after laying an entire clutch. Both the male and female help incubate the eggs. When the adults incubate the eggs, they sit on them to keep them at the perfect temperature. This is important for the healthy development of the young nestlings inside. After about 29 days, the young kestrels hatch.

While they are growing, kestrel nestlings eat about two times more than the adults do—consuming two or three mice a day! About 28-31 days after hatching, the nestlings are grown and ready to take their first flight. For any bird, the first flights are the most precarious. They leave the nest and, though their parents are still around to protect them, young inexperienced birds can get into a lot of trouble. They have to learn to recognize and evade predators and they can be injured or killed when they fly into windows, are hit by cars, or become tangled up in barbed wire fences. Placing a nest box away from roads and fences can help provide the young kestrels with a safe environment in which to practice hunting and evade danger. American Kestrels are able to reproduce as early as one year of age.

Idaho Connection

American Kestrels are found throughout most of Idaho year-round, making them one of the easiest raptors to spot. Open fields, roadsides, power lines, and telephone poles are all good places to search for American Kestrels. In southern Idaho, a good place to look is the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area.

Another excellent place is at The Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise. The fields of sage and grasses along the road leading to our headquarters are filled with prey animals that attract several species of birds of prey, including American Kestrels. Our nest boxes fill up quickly during the breeding season.

Our partners at Boise State University monitor two networks of kestrel boxes—one at high elevation in central Idaho, and one in the Boise area. You can symbolically adopt one of the project's boxes and receive updates on the kestrel family that takes up residence in your adopted box each spring. Find out more here.

American Kestrel and The World Center for Birds of Prey

Come to the World Center for Birds of Prey and meet an American Kestrel up close, examine kestrel feathers at the touch table, and compare the size of a kestrel egg with that of an ostrich. If you walk the interpretive nature trail to the gazebo overlooking the Boise Valley, you are likely to see a kestrel hovering over the sage in search of prey or, if you are lucky, a young bird just learning to fly.