Common Kestrels - Hovering Hunters

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The Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) is a small1 bird of prey that can be recognised from its habit of hovering over grasslands hunting for small mammals. These birds can be found across Europe, Asia and Africa. Some members of the species stay relatively close to where they hatched (such as in the UK), while others migrate over longer distances (for example Common Kestrels from northern Europe may travel as far as central Africa for the winter).

Common Kestrels have speckled plumage - their backs are red-brown in colour, and their chests are cream or buff. Males look similar to females, but they are smaller and have grey heads and tails. You may hear their 'kee-kee-kee' call in the breeding season, but they are usually silent. They are well-camouflaged in trees, and can also conceal themselves on buildings, but when they are hunting for food you may see them perched on a post, or hovering in the air and fluttering their wings to hold their position.

Common Kestrels mainly catch and eat small mammals, especially field voles. They may also eat insects, larger mammals (such as rabbits) and even other birds (such as blackbirds). Grassland is where Common Kestrels find most of their prey, but roads and railway embankments also provide good hunting grounds.

Breeding sites for Common Kestrels include holes in trees, old nests made by crows or other larger birds, or ledges on cliffs or buildings. The female lays up to five eggs and does most of the incubation. The eggs hatch after about a month. The fluffy chicks are looked after by the female for a further fortnight, and then both parents feed them. The fledglings leave the breeding site around five weeks after the day they hatched. They are fed by their parents for a further month before they become independent. The oldest Common Kestrel known to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was 20 years old.

Conservation

There are estimated to be at least four million Common Kestrels globally, so they have been classed as Least Concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. However, the population has decreased in recent years, mainly because of changes in farming practice reducing the amount of available prey. In the 20th Century they were often shot for sport. Common Kestrels are sometimes used in Falconry. Hand-reared birds have also become pets - for example author Barry Hines famously described his life with a Common Kestrel in the book (and film) Kes and naturalist Chris Packham credits his love of wildlife to his experiences of raising a Common Kestrel as a teenager.

The Kestrel Family

There are several species of bird around the world that are named 'kestrel'. They are generally similar in appearance, having a sleek shape, strong beak and powerful claws, although their colouring varies. Some of the species are increasing in number, such as the Nankeen Kestrel (Falco cenchroides) of Australia. Other species have stable populations, including the American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), which is found in North, Central and South America. Other species are faring less well. The Seychelles Kestrel (Falco araeus) population is classed as stable but vulnerable, as it is only found on the islands of the Seychelles. The Mauritius Kestrel (Falco punctatus) is endangered, as it is found only on the island of Mauritius and the population has decreased considerably in the 21st Century - there are estimated to be fewer than 500 birds in the wild.

1About the same size as a Stock Dove or feral pigeon.

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