If you’ve ever seen a small colorful raptor sitting along roadsides, or hunting over fields, it’s probably an American Kestrel, the smallest member of the falcon family in North America.
These incredible stunning little falcons live year-round in the open country.
American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) are skilled at hunting from a perch, dropping down on mice hiding in the grass, grabbing lizards camouflaged in the sand, or preying on insects that catch their eye.
So when you’ve seen these beautiful falcons, how do you know if you’re seeing the male kestrel or the female kestrel?
Identifying These Colorful Falcons
IntoBirds is here to help you learn how to identify these colorful falcons.
American Kestrels differ in their looks because they’re sexually dimorphic.
Meaning there are plumage differences between the sexes.
The kestrels’ dimorphism is unique, especially in juveniles.
Other species of juvenile raptors have first-year plumage resembling the adult female or its similar between the sexes.
But the differences between the male and female kestrel are noticeable early in the nestling stage after the bird’s primary feathers have grown close to about an inch.
Unlike other raptors, once you learn the identifying characteristics, it’s easy to tell the male and female kestrel apart.
Shared Traits of the American Kestrel
First, let’s focus on what both sexes of the American Kestrels share in common.
All Kestrels have dark “eyes” called ocelli on the back of their heads.
These spots are “false eyes,” making predators think that kestrels have “eyes in the back of their heads.”
The kestrel’s ocelli deter attacks from behind but are no guarantee that kestrels won’t become prey for larger raptors.
Male and female kestrels have two black “double mustaches,” called malaria stripes resembling a mustache and sideburns on either side of their heads.
But that’s where the similarities end.
Identifying Male Kestrels
Kestrels have many detailed markings and colorings.
But to keep it simple, male kestrels are easily identified by their bold markings, which include their gray head and barred, rufous (brick red) wings, and steel blue backs.
The male’s tail feathers are also rufous-colored with a thick black band at the tip of its russet tail but lack black barring that female kestrels have.
Males have blue-gray wing coverts (upper wings), a rufous-brown back, and black primary feathers.
The outer tail feathers (sometimes the outer few) may have multiple bands, and when folded can look completely banded underneath.
Adult males are buffy on the underbody with black spots and orangey breasts.
Juvenile males are whitish underneath with dark streaks but molt into adult plumage during the first fall.
Identifying Female Kestrels
Female kestrels are easily identified by their rufous-colored head, wings, and backs, with black barring.
The female’s wings lack the male’s blue-gray color.
Its rufous tail has barring with a shorter black band near the top of its tail.
Their wing coverts and tail are rufous-brown, with black barring.
Females are pale buff below with blurry rufous-brown streaks on their underside. (Female kestrels don’t have dark dots like the males).
Juveniles and adult females are nearly identical to each other and are difficult to identify in the field.
Seeing American Kestrels in Open Country
American Kestrels are exciting to see in the wild in open country and cities throughout the U.S.
Kestrels are high-energy birds, often appearing restless when perched, bobbing their heads or tails up and down, or vocalizing an excited, high-pitched klee-klee-klee.
Kestrel’s Hovering Ability
These small raptors are known for their hover-hunting abilities, a skill they’re more adept at than any other raptor.
While hovering, kestrels scan the horizon for prey while remaining in the same precise airspace, allowing them uninterrupted focus.
Kestrels catch dragonflies and butterflies on the wing, picking them apart in mid-flight.
They’re cavity-nesting birds, and since they’ve adapted to humans, kestrels frequent nest boxes, abandoned buildings, or nest in roof openings of active residences.
In remote areas, kestrel’s use holes in trees, or cliff-face crevices for nesting.
Now when you’re out in the field, you can identify the smallest and most colorful falcon in North America.
American Kestrels are one of the best known, most frequently observed, and readily identifiable raptors, so get outside and add this beautiful bird to your life list.
American Kestrels in This Story
The American Kestrels featured in this story are named Chip (male American Kestrel) and Salsa (female American Kestrel).
They’re bird ambassadors at Christine’s Critters, a non-profit in Connecticut whose mission is to rescue, rehabilitate and release injured birds of prey.
Chip and Salsa are both non-releasable back into the wild because of a brush with humanity.
Chip was hit by a car losing eyesight of his right eye and cannot be released because he cannot see well enough to hunt.
About 75% of the raptors that Christine’s Critters admits each year have been struck by a vehicle.
Please don’t throw food waste or garbage outside your car. It attracts rodents, and birds of prey come close to the roadways to prey on the rodents and are hit by cars.
Salsa was being kept as a pet in an apartment in a birdcage in the Bronx. As a result, Salsa is imprinted on humans and unable to be released into the wild.
Please remember, Raptors do NOT make good pets, and it is illegal to possess them unless they’re properly licensed for educational purposes.