An American kestrel perches on a small branch. The elusive, but common, falcon weighs less than a half-pound.

Weighing in at just under 6 ounces, the American kestrel (Falco sparverius) is the smallest in the falcon family in North America. About the size of a dove, it is also the most widespread in in North America. Their range extends from central Mexico to Alaska and across the U.S. and Canada. However, they do migrate from Alaska and Canada south in the winter.

These little falcons are easy to find but are hard to get close to. With few exceptions, I can usually only get about 50 feet from them, making photographing them difficult. Sometimes they will let me get close but fly off as I am about to click the shutter!

American kestrels are year-round residents, most often found in open areas around the Klamath Basin. They like grasslands, farm fields and meadows. However, they can also be found in parks and cities. They nest in tree cavities, tree hollows, small nooks in buildings and nesting boxes. The kestrel cannot make its own cavity and so, will take over holes built by woodpeckers.

Vantage points

Kestrels hunt by day and can usually be seen perched on power lines, atop telephone poles, and other high vantage points looking for their next meal. If that is not working for them, they will fly 30 to 50 feet above the ground, beat their wings very fast, and hover in place. Once the prey is spotted, they dive down to capture it. They are also able to pursue and capture prey in flight. Their diet is very diverse. It includes worms, insects, bugs, frogs, rodents, lizards, and small birds. They have also been observed catching and eating bats.

What I find most interesting about the American kestrel is that, unlike most birds, the female is as attractive as the male. Both are buff on their underside, with black spots on the male and rusty brown spots on the female, which can appear as stripes. They both have rusty-brown-with-black barring on their backs. Her tail is also barred. They both have black vertical stripes on the side of their face resembling “moustache and sideburns.” And, both have a black bar tipped by a white stripe at the end of their tail. The main difference is that the males have slate-grey wings, females have rusty brown wings. When seen in flight, they are slender birds with long swept back, narrow wings.

Kestrels have a limited number of calls. The most common and distinctive being a “klee” or “killy” sound, repeated rapidly several times. During breeding season, the male will climb and dive repeatedly, calling at the top of each ascent.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the population of the American kestrel is on the decline, down 50 percent since 1966. This is due to continued clearing of land and the trees they depend on. Pesticides and pollution are also to blame; the pesticides destroy the insects and other prey they depend on.

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