Master of the sky and once the commonest bird of prey.
The kestrel is a medium-sized falcon, with long wings and tail. Its wings are rather narrow at the base and slightly blunt at tips when spread, and pointed when held closed. The kestrel hovers frequently with its tail spread like a fan, revealing a broad black bar at tip, and finer, dark lateral barring across its white tail feathers. The size of their large, yellow-ringed eyes seems enhanced by their short neck and small head, which holds a sharply curved bill that is black-grey with a yellow base. Their legs are also yellow and end in four, razor-sharp talons. Adult males have a very distinctive blue-grey head and upperparts, and a brick-red back. The female, which is larger than the male, is more uniform, with mainly chestnut plumage, although at a distance sexes can appear similar. Females are similar in appearance to juveniles, both have reddish-brown, barred back and tail plumage.
Common Kestrel perched
Kestrels have amazing eyesight and are able to see and then catch a beetle up to 50 metres away.
The kestrel emits a piercing ‘kee-kee-kee’ which will most often be heard at the nest site.
Kestrels generally eat insects and small mammals, preferring beetles and voles. They will also prey on small birds and insects.
Close up of a Kestrel
The kestrel is also known as the Windhover, due to its mastery of flight and ability to hover, an aspect that is celebrated by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem of the same name. “High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing”.
Kestrels are found in a wide variety of habitats, including cultivated country, heaths, moorland, roadsides and towns, pretty much anywhere it can find prey. In Britain, the kestrel is common and widespread, and can be seen all year round.
Kestrel in flight
Perched kestrels have a noticeably upright posture. When in direct flight, the kestrel’s wingbeats are fast and shallow with a few glides. Its most distinctive behaviour is the ability to hover in a fixed position on rapidly beating wings, with its head remaining unerringly still, or remain motionless on an updraught. It drops vertically on to prey, which is then usually carried away to be eaten on a perch. Kestrels will also hunt by sitting on wires and posts and can sometimes be seen stalking earthworms on the ground. Its hovering flight distinguishes it immediately from that of the other common raptor: the sparrowhawk. It also flies on straight wings, rather than flexed.
Kestrels will begin breeding in spring, with eggs laid between April and May. The female will lay a clutch of 3-7 eggs, which she incubates for about 28 days. During this time the male will provide her with food. Kestrels aren’t fussy about where they nest and will use anything from old crows’ nests, to treeholes, cliffs, and building ledges. They generally don’t use any nesting material, preferring a Spartan aesthetic. This extends to their young’s chances of survival, with only around 20 percent of birds surviving their first two years.
Nest of a Common Kestrel
Young/Juvenile Kestrels waiting
Kestrels can live for up to 16 years, but the average age is around 4 years.
Kestrels are resident in Britain, and numbers increase in early autumn as visitors from Europe arrive to overwinter. Some British birds will head south to Spain during this time.
The number of kestrels declined in the 1970s, and population numbers have further decreased in recent years. This is thought to be the result of a change in agricultural practices. In the UK, they have a conservation status of Amber, and there is thought to be around 46,000 breeding pairs currently. In the late 1980s, that number was estimated at 52,000. The species’ number fluctuates and is closely linked to that of their primary food source: voles. However, kestrels are highly adaptable creatures, tolerating the proximity of people and are able to thrive in urban areas.
Eleonora’s falcons are polymorphic. That is to say they have two different plumage patterns and colours which are apparent within the single species. They are also monotypic indicating that there are no sub-species.
Frequently known as simply a peregrine, this magnificent bird, whilst not the fastest in level flight, can achieve incredible speeds in excess of 300 kilometres an hour when diving on to its prey, making it the fastest of any bird or animal in the world.
The merlin is a predominantly ground nesting falcon and the UK’s smallest bird of prey. Preferring upland and moorland areas for breeding the bird may venture in to lowland regions during the winter when it is joined by migrating merlins from Iceland.