Birds of prey have always been a favourite of mine. Today’s animal is definitely up there on a list of my all-time top birds, mostly because they combine being small and cute with fierce hunting abilities.

American kestrels are, in fact, the smallest falcons in North America. They only grow to be 19-21cm long, weighing at most 165 grams. The sexes look quite different, with females having rust coloured wings and heads, while males have grey coloured wings. Both sexes have black and white patterns on their faces, which take the form of two distinct bars on either side of the face. Spotted barring may also be present on both sexes.

A male American kestrel, looking as regal as a little birdie can.  Image by Photo by Greg Hume (Greg5030), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

American kestrels are found all over both North and South America, ranging from Alaska all the way to the tip of Argentina. Some areas of the kestrel’s northern range (including most of Canada) are only used during the summer breeding season. As you might guess by the size of their range, kestrels are adapted to a number of different habitats. All they need to be happy is some open ground to hunt in, perches to look out from, and cavities to nest in. Urban environments actually satisfy these requirements pretty well, so it’s not uncommon to see kestrels around cities.

Kestrels are faithful birds, forming pair bonds at the beginning of the breeding season which are usually permanent. To initiate a bond, courtship displays are used, which can include neat aerial tricks and some meals out together. Once a bond is formed, it becomes very strong, and pairs search for a nesting site together. Pairs often return to the same site year after year.

Females lay 3-7 eggs in the nest, which can be in any area protected from predators. Usually they are found in tree hollows, rocks crevices or in man-made structures. Both parents share nest duties, but the female spends much more time around the nest, incubating the eggs or guarding chicks, while the male brings food for both her and the chicks. The chicks hatch after about a month, and fledge a month after that. In another three weeks the chicks become independent and leave the nest.

A young kestrel. Isn’t it cute?
Image by Steve Hillebrand, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Kestrels are quite vocal birds, and have three types of calls that they use: a ‘klee’, a ‘chitter’ and a ‘whine’. The klee is used to express excitement or distress, while the chitter is mating-specific and is used during courtship and copulation. Finally, the whine is a feeding call, used by males, females, and hungry chicks.

Due to their small size, kestrels tend to eat small prey, primarily insects. They will also kill small rodents, snakes and frogs if they can get them. Kestrels are also vulnerable to predation themselves, especially from other raptors. The black bars on the kestrels’ faces are thought to be a defence mechanism against this, fooling any predators into thinking he back of the kestrels’ heads are their faces. I’m not sure how well that works for the kestrels, but I do think their markings look pretty cool.

Most people probably don’t consider falcons cute, but those people should just look at the kestrel. Yes, they’re fierce hunters with sharp beaks and talons, but they’re also little and have big eyes. Isn’t that the definition of cute? In any case I think they are adorable birds, and you should too.

Cover image by Ken Janes, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons