Common Kestrel

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Common Name: Common Kestrel
Scientific Name: Falco tinnunculus

Size: 13-15 inches (32-39 cm); Wingspan: 20.1-24 inches (65-82 cm)

Habitat: Europe, Asia and Africa; it is widespread in Europe, Asia, and Africa, as well as occasionally reaching the east coast of North America. It has colonized a few oceanic islands, vagrant individuals are generally rare; in the whole of Micronesia for example, the species was only recorded twice each on Guam and Saipan in the Marianas. In the cool-temperate parts of its range, the common kestrel migrates south in winter; otherwise it is sedentary. However as juveniles mature they may wander around in search of a good place to settle down.

It prefers open habitat such as fields, heaths, shrub-land and marshland. It does not require woodland to be present as long as there are alternative perching and nesting sites like rocks or buildings. It will thrive in treeless steppe where there are abundant herbaceous plants and shrubs to support a population of prey animals.

The common kestrel readily adapts to human settlement, as long as sufficient swathes of vegetation are available, and may even be found in wetlands, moorlands and arid savanna.

Status: Least Concern. Global population: 5,000,000 adult individuals. In Europe, trends since 1980 show that populations have undergone a moderate decline, based on provisional data for 21 countries from the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme. Past population declines had resulted from the heavy use of organochlorine and other pesticides in the 1950s-1960s. In Malta, the species was exterminated by shooting, though it has since returned. The population in much of the rest of Europe has shown a more recent steady decline, thought to be due to agricultural intensification. The species is vulnerable to the effects of potential wind energy development by striking the turbine propellers.

Diet: Mouse-sized mammals: typically voles, but also shrews and true mice supply up to three-quarters or more of its diet. On oceanic islands, where mammals are often scarce, small birds may make up the bulk of its diet. When mammals and birds are scarce, it will hunt small reptiles and large insects.

When hunting, it characteristically hovers about 33–66 feet (10–20 m) above the ground, searching for prey, either by flying into the wind or by soaring using ridge lift.

Nesting: Females are noticeably larger than males. Their plumage is mainly light chestnut brown with blackish spots on the upper-side and buff with narrow blackish streaks on the underside; the remiges are also blackish. Unlike most raptors, they display sexual color dimorphism with the male having fewer black spots and streaks, as well as a blue-grey cap and tail. The tail is brown with black bars in females, and has a black tip with a narrow white rim in both sexes. All common kestrels have a prominent black malar stripe like their closest relatives.

It starts breeding in spring and is a cavity nester; preferring holes in cliffs, trees or buildings. In general, common kestrels will usually tolerate conspecifics nesting nearby, and sometimes a few dozen pairs may be found nesting in a loose colony.

The clutch is normally 3–6 eggs. The buff colored eggs are abundantly patterned with brown spots to large almost-black blotches. Incubation lasts some 28 to 31 days. Only the female incubates the eggs. The male is responsible for provisioning her with food, and for some time after hatching this remains the same. Later, both parents share brooding and hunting duties until the young fledge, after 28 to 35 days. The family stays close together for a few weeks, up to a month or so, during which time the young learn how to fend for themselves and hunt prey. The young become sexually mature the next breeding season.

Cool Facts: It is also known as the European kestrel, Eurasian kestrel, or Old World kestrel. In Britain, where no other kestrel species occurs, it is generally just called "the kestrel".

A number of subspecies of the common kestrel are known, though some are hardly distinct and may be invalid. Most of them differ little, although tropical African forms have less grey in the male plumage.

  • F. t. tinnunculus , described by Linnaeus in 1758. It is found in temperate areas of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia north of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya mountain ranges to the NW Sea of Okhotsk region. Northern Asian populations migrate south in winter, apparently not crossing the Himalayas but diverting to the west.
  • F. t. rupicolus, described by Daudin in 1800. Known as the “Rock kestrel”. It is found in NW Angola and S Zaire to S Tanzania, and south to South Africa. Probably a distinct species, but its limits with F. t. rufescens require further study. It differs markedly from the other subspecies of the F. tinnunculus complex. In particular, the females have what in other subspecies are typically male characteristics such as a grey head and tail, and spotted rather than barred upper parts. The rock kestrel has less heavily marked, brighter chestnut upper parts and its under parts are also a bright chestnut that contrasts with the nearly unmarked white under wings. Females tend to have more black bands in the central tail feathers than males. The open mountain habitat also differs from that of its relatives.
  • F. t. rufescens, described by Swainson in 1837. It is found in Sahel east to Ethiopia, southwards around Congo basin to S Tanzania and NE Angola.
  • F. t. interstinctus, described by McClelland in 1840. Breeds in East Asia from Tibet to Korea and Japan, south into Indochina. Winters to the south of its breeding range, from northeastern India to the Philippines. They are dark, heavily marked birds and have a foxed red phase, which is not reliably identified in the field.
  • F. t. rupicolaeformis, described by C. L. Brehm in 1855. It is found in the Arabian Peninsula, except for in the desert and across the Red Sea into Africa.
  • F. t. neglectus, described by Schlegel in 1873. It is found in the Northern Cape Verde Islands.
  • F. t. canariensis, described by Koenig in 1890. It is found in Madeira and western Canary Islands and is considered the more ancient Canaries subspecies.
  • F. t. dacotiae, described by Hartert in 1913. It goes by the local name: cernícalo. It is found in the Eastern Canary Islands (Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, Chinijo Archipelago). It is considered a more recently evolved subspecies than canariensis.
  • F. t. objurgatus, described by Baker in 1929. It is found in Western, Nilgiris and Eastern Ghats in India, Sri Lanka. It is heavily marked, has rufous thighs with dark grey head in males.
  • F. t. archerii, described by Hartert & Neumann in 1932. It is found in Somalia, coastal Kenya, and Socotra.
  • F. t. alexandri, described by Bourne in 1955. It is found in the Southwestern Cape Verde Islands.

The kestrel is sometimes seen, like other birds of prey, as a symbol of the power and vitality of nature. In "Into Battle" (1915), the war poet Julian Grenfell invokes the superhuman characteristics of the kestrel among several birds, when hoping for prowess in battle:

The kestrel hovering by day, And the little owl that call at night, Bid him be swift and keen as they, As keen of ear, as swift of sight.

This 3D model is found in Songbird Remix Birds of Prey Volume I: Kestrels, Hobbies and Falcons

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