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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

American Kestrel

Falco sparverius ORDER: FALCONIFORMES FAMILY: FALCONIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

North America’s littlest falcon, the American Kestrel packs a predator’s fierce intensity into its small body. It's one of the most colorful of all raptors: the male’s slate-blue head and wings contrast elegantly with his rusty-red back and tail; the female has the same warm reddish on her wings, back, and tail. Hunting for insects and other small prey in open territory, kestrels perch on wires or poles, or hover facing into the wind, flapping and adjusting their long tails to stay in place. Kestrels are declining in parts of their range; you can help them by putting up nest boxes.

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Keys to identification Help

Hawklike
Hawklike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    The slender American Kestrel is roughly the size and shape of a Mourning Dove, although it has a larger head; longer, narrow wings; and long, square-tipped tail. In flight, the wings are often bent and the wingtips swept back.

  • Color Pattern

    American Kestrels are pale when seen from below and warm, rusty brown spotted with black above, with a black band near the tip of the tail. Males have slate-blue wings; females’ wings are reddish brown. Both sexes have pairs of black vertical slashes on the sides of their pale faces—sometimes called a “mustache” and a “sideburn."

  • Behavior

    American Kestrels usually snatch their victims from the ground, though some catch quarry on the wing. They are gracefully buoyant in flight, and are small enough to get tossed around in the wind. When perched, kestrels often pump their tails as if they are trying to balance.

  • Habitat

    American Kestrels occupy habitats ranging from deserts and grasslands to alpine meadows. You’re most likely to see them perching on telephone wires along roadsides, in open country with short vegetation and few trees.

Range Map Help

American Kestrel Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    American Kestrel

    Adult male
    • Very small falcon
    • Reddish orange back with black markings
    • Blue/gray wings
    • Black and white facial pattern
    • © Michael Hogan, New Jersey, February 2005
  • Adult female

    American Kestrel

    Adult female
    • Very small with rounded head
    • Long wings and tail
    • Black and white facial pattern
    • Tan wings with black markings
    • © Ned Harris, Arizona, December 2008
  • Adult male

    American Kestrel

    Adult male
    • Long wings and tail with rounded head
    • Blue/gray crown and wings
    • Bold facial pattern
    • Black markings on buffy orange back and breast
    • © Darin Ziegler, Colorado Springs, Colorado, April 2008
  • Adult female

    American Kestrel

    Adult female
    • Small and delicate
    • Long wings and tail
    • Black markings on back and breast
    • Bold facial pattern
    • © Christopher L. Wood, Colorado, April 2008
  • Adult male taking flight

    American Kestrel

    Adult male taking flight
    • Sharply pointed wings
    • Robin-sized
    • Thick black band at tip of tail
    • Bold facial pattern
    • © Ron Kube, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, April 2009
  • Adult male in flight

    American Kestrel

    Adult male in flight
    • Small and delicate
    • Long wings and tail
    • Underwings pale with dark barring
    • © Paul Pruitt, La Vernia, Wilson County, Texas, December 2009
  • Adult female taking flight

    American Kestrel

    Adult female taking flight
    • Long, pointed wings
    • Dark streaks on breast
    • Tan and black patterned wings
    • Bold facial pattern
    • © William Jobes, Pennsylvania, September 2008
  • Juvenile

    American Kestrel

    Juvenile
    • Similar to adult female
    • Dense brown streaking on breast
    • Bold facial pattern
    • Delicate, with long wings and tail
    • © Ron Kube, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, September 2009

Similar Species

  • Immature

    Sharp-shinned Hawk

    Immature
    • Similar to female American Kestrel, but more slender and stream-lined
    • Plain brown face and wings with no pattern
    • Wings shorter, more rounded than American Kestrel
    • Long tail
    • © John Rowe, Ossipee, New Hampshire, October 2010
  • Adult female

    Merlin

    Adult female "Taiga form"
    • Larger, more muscular than American Kestrel
    • Plain face with no obvious pattern
    • Dark brown, unmarked back and wings
    • © Duncan Murray, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, December 2008

Similar Species

Merlin is a slightly larger, stockier, darker brown version of the American Kestrel—similar in size but quite different in flight style and attitude. Merlins target larger prey, particularly shorebirds and other small to medium-sized birds, which they often chase on the wing. American Kestrels leave such large prey alone. Merlins have a snappier flight style, and looks like a powerhouse with strong, near-constant wingbeats. Sharp-shinned Hawk is roughly kestrel-sized, but it's an accipiter—it has broader wings, a longer tail, and is thicker through the chest. Sharp-shinned Hawks have heavier markings below and are not as warm red-brown on the back; they also hunt in more heavily wooded areas than kestrels. One species frequently confused with kestrels isn't even a raptor. Mourning Doves occupy the same habitats as kestrels and often sit on telephone wires. They have much smaller heads than kestrels and their tails are slender and pointed. In flight, Mourning Doves tend to fly fast and in straight lines, with nearly continuous wingbeats.

Backyard Tips

Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find out more about nest boxes on our Attract Birds pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.

Find This Bird

Scan fence posts, utility lines and telephone poles, particularly when driving through farmland. Or catch them by the hundreds at coastal migration sites—such as Cape May, New Jersey, or Kiptopeke, Virginia—in September or early October. Particularly in summer, listen for their shrill killy-killy-killy call to be alerted to when they're around.