The American kestrel is the smallest and most common falcon in North America. It is widespread throughout North, South, and Central America, and has adapted well to many different open environments, including meadows, grasslands, desert, parkland, agricultural fields, and urban and suburban areas. It needs open land for hunting and conspicuous perches (including telephone wires) from which to spy prey.
The Maryland Zoo features an American kestrel among its Animal Ambassadors, which are shown to audiences in education programs on and off grounds. The Zoo’s kestrel was found injured at Camden Yards, in downtown Baltimore. She received care, recovered from her injury, and was successfully rehabilitated but could no longer survive in the wild.
The American kestrel is a raptor: a bird of prey with a strong hooked beak and powerful talons on its feet for catching prey. The word “raptor” comes from the Latin rapere, meaning “to seize.”
American kestrels prey mainly upon rodents and large insects such as beetles, locusts, and dragonflies. They swoop down upon their prey and grab it in their talons. When swooping, these little birds can travel up to 100 miles per hour! They hunt mainly in the morning and late afternoon, and rely upon excellent eyesight for spotting prey. They will sit on a telephone wire or other perch, looking for prey, or hover in mid-air if no perch is available.
Males and females are distinguished easily from each other by differences in coloration and size. Male kestrels are more variable in their coloration, with blue-gray wings, a rust-colored tail, and an orange to reddish back and rump. Females are more rust-colored all over and are slightly larger than males.
During breeding season, females will mate with several males before settling down with one mate and laying eggs. Most females lay clutches of 4 or 5 eggs. American kestrels nest in tree cavities that are not lined with nesting material. They also will nest in buildings and in nest boxes. Females incubate the eggs, which hatch after about 30 days. Once hatched, the baby kestrels remain in the nest for about 4 weeks, and both parents care for them. The females stay with their chicks on the nest and, for about the first 3 weeks, beg food from their mates that they then feed to the chicks. After that, and until leaving the nest, the chicks beg food directly from the male and feed themselves.
American kestrels will try to escape any threat by flying away. Feral cats and human hunters are their most lethal predators, and as with many other birds of prey they also run the risk of being struck by cars.
The American kestrel is not endangered. In fact, unlike many species, it has done well in response to increased deforestation of the American continents.