For the Birds Radio Program: American Kestrel (DD)

Original Air Date: Sept. 18, 1989

Our tiniest falcon is an avian treasure.

Audio missing


The “most light-hearted and frolicsome” of all our hawks, as William Brewster wrote in 1925, is the American Kestrel. Elliot Coues in 1874 called it “the prettiest and jauntiest of our hawks, and yet no prig.” These lithe creatures weigh a mere four ounces, yet how elegantly that weight is distributed. Their svelte bodies are supported in airy space by dainty, slender wings measuring twenty-four inches from tip to tip.

I’ve counted as many as 75 kestrels in a single morning at the Lakewood Pumping Station, moving lightly through blue sky and clouds, their flight hurried on by a pressing cold front. Once I counted 31 in a single long flock, moving along the shore like phantoms in the soft light just before the sun rose. In 1988, a total of 700 kestrels were counted from the Pumphouse, yet if every one of them were piled up on a scale, they would barely offset the weight of one hundred-and-seventy-five pound man.

Kestrels eat on the wing as they migrate. Large flights often coincide with movements of dragonflies, and it’s a common sight to see one pluck a dragonfly out of the sky with its effective little talons and munch as it flies along—an ecologically sound method of fast food.

Field guides show kestrels as colorful, with rufous backs and tails and slate blue wings on males. They’re also shown with a narrow tail and pointed wings pulled back in flight. But the kestrels themselves were obviously not consulted when producing those field guides—they often soar with their wings and tails fanned widely out. And sometimes when the wind is right, they manage to look like sharpshins. Unless you see one at or below eye level in good light, you’re not likely to see much color. Nevertheless, kestrels can usually be identified by their buoyant flight, their slender appearance, and a row of light dots along the trailing edge of the wing, though I’ve seen Merlins with prominent dots, too. Several of the kestrels I’ve watched this year have been molting, giving their wings a ragged appearance and rounded tips. As Ogden Nash wrote:

A bird in the open never looks
Like its picture in the birdie books,
Or if it once did, it has changed its plumage,
And plunges you back into ignorant gloomage.

During migration some kestrels stop to rest in our area, and for a time they’re more common than during the breeding season, Although they’re most abundant in farm and pastureland, they’re also adapting to urban life. In Duluth’s harbor, where sparrows and mice feed on spilled grain, kestrels can be found year round. In most places they specialize on grasshoppers in season, but aren’t above getting their protein however they can find it.

Migrant kestrels coursing through our skies right now are headed for the central and southern United States and Mexico. One immature female David Evans banded in Duluth in 1980 was found dead near the southern tip of Texas in September 1986. That one had outlived many of its contemporaries—the average kestrel lives only a year and three months. Seventy-five percent of all kestrels die between August and November. They break their wings on transmission towers and lines, crash into windows, are hit by cars and locomotives, eaten by bigger hawks, and mauled by cats. And even in this kinder and gentler era, a large number are still shot by people.

Kestrels ask for nothing from us, yet they give us a great deal—by killing insect and rodent pests, adding to the beauty and grace of the earth, and indicating by their numbers the health of the environment. I hope for our sake as well as their that they remain a part of our world forever.