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 Kestrel- Fact File

female (left) and male

Falco tinnunculus
Our commonest falcon and a widespread resident over all Britain and Ireland.
Found in a wide variety of haunts including open or lightly wooded farmland, moors, wetlands and urban areas.

Female slightly larger than male. Both are brownish on the upperparts, the male being more rufous and has blue-grey head and tail. Hovers frequently and indeed, is probably most often seen hovering alongside motorway and road verges.

33 - 39cm (13 - 15")


The kestrel, most widespread and often most abundant of European birds of prey, is a familiar sight from trains and cars. It occupies a great range of habitats: coastal dunes, fresh-marshes, woodland, farmland and commons, saltings, airfields, road verges and even town centres; indeed anywhere it can find prey.

Ringing recoveries confirm that kestrels from the Low Countries, Scandinavia and even central Europe arrive here early each autumn.

Most favoured areas to see them are the sea walls and saltings along the east shore of The Wash where totals of 70 are on record. In turn, some kestrels born here emigrate southward to Spain for the winter. Its distinctive hunting has earned the kestrel the name of Windhover. No other hawk has so perfected the art of stationary flight.

It hangs at a height of 20 or 30 ft poised in the air with quivering wings and widespread depressed tail searching the ground below. Even in the face of a stiff gusty wind it can remain stationary in mid-air. If no prey is sighted the bird glides forward or circles a few times before hovering once more over new ground.

Most impressive action takes place on spotting quarry. The hunter rushes headlong with almost closed wings and checks itself close to the ground as if stopping for a second look. Then, with feet thrust forward it makes its final plunge seizing its victim before mounting again. Alternatively, a kestrel may perch on a post, telegraph pole or overhead cable watching for prey below. Once prey is sighted it is caught by a short, steep dive from the perch. High soaring flight is unusual; kestrels seldom move at a great height unless on migration.

Although the kestrel's main prey is small mammals, especially voles, the catalogue of birds taken is a lengthy one. Most observations relate to larks, pipits and finches but kestrels are capable of taking such quarry as fieldfares, turtle doves and lapwing.

Kestrels at Yarmouth have acquired an insatiable appetite for nestling little terns returning time and time again; a most unfortunate practice. Less controversial was another kestrel which flew repeatedly through cowsheds, snatching house sparrows from the rafters. Kestrels haunt throughout the hours of daylight and may at times continue searching for prey until dusk. Bats have featured in their diet and individuals have been seen hunting by moonlight.

Enlightened farmers are conserving kestrels by erecting nesting boxes on tail poles. One Fenland farmer, concerned at the lack of suitable nesting sites, has erected several boxes.

A most elaborate scheme has been undertaken in Holland where a plague of small mammals developed on newly reclaimed land. Over 100 boxes were erected on a new polder and a large proportion were occupied by kestrels in the first season.

No real nest is made by the adaptable kestrel. It accept sites in church towers, old windmills and hollow trees. Deserted nests of other birds such as a crow or magpie are also used. In Broadland, nests have been known on the ground.

Kestrels at Halvergate Marshes once occupied an old cattle shed rearing young on the ground. Above them in a dark recess, barn owls also bred successfully. City kestrels often tolerate considerable disturbance. Nests have been known on railway bridges only a few feet below the tracks, in buildings near office blocks and on balconies of blocks of flats

Michael J. Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.