Kestrels, also known as the Eurasian, Common, and European Kestrel, are one of the UK’s most common birds of prey, regularly seen hovering above roadside verges stalking small voles that form the bulk of their diet.
Males are fairly distinctive, with a chestnut back, greyish-blue head, and charcoal grey tail. Females, on the other hand, are less easily identified, with a plumage that is various shades of brown, marked with darker spotting.
Our guide to female kestrels will equip you with the knowledge you need to make a confident identification of these widespread small raptors, so keep reading to learn more.
There are distinct differences between male and female kestrels. The upperparts of male kestrels are a buff-chestnut colour, dotted with black markings. Their heads are grey with a blueish tinge, and they have a solid, dark grey tail, with a black band across. In comparison, females are larger, brown all over, and have barred markings on their breast, underparts and underside of their tails.
Female kestrels are an unremarkable shade of mid-brown, with their upper parts a richer shade than their breast and underparts.Their wingtips are darker brown than the rest of their bodies, and their tails are light brown, barred with darker, almost black banding. Female kestrels’ bodies are speckled all over with mottled darker markings.
Some faint markings are visible on a female kestrel’s face, with a slightly darker moustache stripe and distinctly paler throat feathers. Female kestrels have black eyes, surrounded by a bright yellow ring.
Their beaks are grey, with a yellow cere, and their feet, like those of the male kestrel, are also yellow.
Female Kestrel perched on the top of a tree
Female kestrels are slightly larger and heavier than males. They weigh between 154 and 314g (5.4 and 11.1 oz) and are at the upper end of the species average length range of between 27 and 35 cm (10.6 to 13.8 in). A female kestrel’s wingspan can be as wide as 82 cm (32.3 in).
Female (left) and male (right) European Kestrels
Young female kestrels are known to be bolder than males; darker in colour than male nestlings, females are more vocal and competitive for food, even at this early stage.
During courtship, however, a more passive role is taken by the female, who observes the displaying male from a perch in a bush or tree while the male performs an elaborate series of swooping dives and near-miss flights as he passes.
The scientific name for the kestrel is Falco tinnunculus, with the second part of the name (tinnunculus) meaning shrill in Latin, reflecting the shrieking call made by the species.
Both males and females use the same ‘kee-kee-kee-kee’ call, although the sound made by female kestrels is lower pitched than that of the male of the species.
Vocalisations for both sexes is at a peak during the breeding season, and during the rest of the year it is far less common to hear a kestrel’s call.
Female Kestrel hovering in the sky
A suitable nest site is chosen by the male kestrel as part of the courtship ritual. Males take prey to their preferred nesting spot, with the hope of persuading the female that he’s a worthy choice to pair up with.
Kestrels do not construct their own nests, so once a suitable site is found (commonly either a disused nest of a corvid, an empty tree cavity, or an artificial nesting box), the female will begin laying. An egg is added to the clutch every 2 to 3 days, and during this time, the female continues to leave the nest to hunt, as normal.
Once the clutch is complete, female kestrels incubate their eggs alone, for 27 to 29 days, depending on the male to bring food back to the nest. Once their eggs have hatched, the female remains on the nest for an additional two weeks, brooding her chicks until they are able to thermoregulate their own body temperatures.
While she is unable to leave the nest to hunt for her own food, the female kestrel relies on the male to deliver food for her and later for their young.
The male brings prey, which the female then tears into smaller chunks before feeding the nestlings. Once fledglings have left the nest, the female will begin to venture out to hunt again, initially remaining fairly close to the nest site.
Male Kestrel hovering in the sky
Nesting females rely on males to bring them food while they are incubating their eggs and later brooding their young.
Some females may briefly leave the nest to hunt, particularly if food is in short supply, but this carries a risk of the nest being raided by predators, or failing due to lack of warmth.
It’s unlikely that a female kestrel could successfully raise young alone, as they would be unable to maintain a steady temperature to ensure the eggs hatched safely, as well as spending enough time hunting to catch enough food to meet their own energy needs.
Female Kestrel perched on a tree
Female kestrels are brown. Their plumage consists of a range of shades of brown, from very pale buff to a richer chestnut, mottled with dark barring. Their backs are mid-brown and their tails and wing-tips are a darker shade.
Both male and female kestrels make the same shrill ‘kee-kee-kee-kee’ and ‘kik-kik-kik-kik’ calls, although the female’s vocalisations are lower-pitched than those of the male. Outside of the breeding season, both sexes become less vocal.
Calling female Kestrel perched on a post
Until they gain their full adult plumage, juvenile kestrels of both sexes resemble female kestrels, with all-over brown colouring, interspersed with dark markings on their upperparts and paler breast, throat and underparts.
Female sparrowhawks have similar colouring to female kestrels, although the former are slightly larger and heavier, and have more grey in their plumage than kestrels.
Female merlins are another bird of prey roughly the same size as a female kestrel. From a distance the pair may be confused, although merlins are usually darker than kestrels, and their upperparts are not as distinctly marked as those of a kestrel.
Juvenile Common Kestrel
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