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American Kestrel


The Audubon Society of Portland is home to Xena, a female American Kestrel.

Xena by Tara Lemezis

Meet Xena

Hatched: Spring of 2017

Arrived at Audubon: June 2017

Sex: Female

Expected lifespan: 8-10 years in wild; 10-13 in captivity

Found: Near Vancouver, WA

History: Xena was brought to the Wildlife Care Center in June 2017 after being found on the ground in Vancouver, Washington. She had a broken wing and a broken leg. She cannot fly well enough to survive in the wild. 

Sponsor Xena

You can help care for Xena through the Audubon Society of Portland's "Sponsor a Wild Thing" program. Sponsorship is a great way to learn more about our incredible education birds; to help us meet the birds' food, medical, and housing needs; and to support our efforts to bring the birds to classrooms and events, where they serve as ambassadors for their species and Portland Audubon. Sponsor Xena today.

Species Fact Sheet
Xena by Clay Showalter

Scientific name
Falco sparverius

Class: Aves
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Falconidae
Genus: Falco
Species: sparverius

The American Kestrel was once known as the "Sparrowhawk." Other nicknames include the Killy Hawk, the Wind Rover, and the Grasshopper Hawk.

Male length: 8.75-10.5 inches
Female length: 8.75-12 inches

Male weight: 90-120 grams
Female weight: 90-165 grams

Male wingspan: 20-23 inches
Female wingspan: 21-24 inches

This falcon is one of the few birds of prey whose sex can be determined by coloration. The male has bluish-slate gray on top of his head with a chestnut crown and bluish slate-gray wings. The back is almost completely chestnut. They have a whitish breast, suffused with light amber-brown, and under parts spotted with black. The tail is red with a black sub-terminal band and white tip. The female’s back, wings, and tail are broadly barred with chestnut and dark brown. They lack the bluish-gray on the head and wings that the male has. The under parts are white streaked and barred on the flanks in cinnamon, along with a brown spotted breast and abdomen. Both have a black patch or stripe on their white face that extends from the eye to the throat with another across the ear. The beak is blue-black. The cere, legs, and feet are yellow to yellow-orange. 

The juvenile is similar to the adult, but more spotted or barred. The juvenile male’s back is slightly darker and completely barred. The tail is tipped with ferruginous not white. The under parts are streaked and spotted throughout. The juvenile female has less conspicuous ferruginous streaking on the head. The back is darker with heavier black barring.

The American Kestrel keeps the juvenile wings, tail, and part of the body plumage through an incomplete molt starting in September or October of the first year. They do not lose these feathers until their second annual molt. At two years (or by the spring of their third year), the immature birds are indistinguishable from the adults.

American Kestrels are very widespread, ranging throughout the Western Hemisphere. They are found from above the Arctic Circle in Alaska and northwestern Canada, south through Canada and the United States, into Mexico, parts of Central America, and most of South America. The American Kestrel is the smallest and most common falcon in these areas.

Habitat/territory size
American Kestrels occur in a variety of habitats from sea level or below up to about 12,000 feet in the Rockies. They require open ground for hunting and are most often found in habitats such as mountain meadows, marshlands, grasslands, deserts, open pine forests, and any kind of mixed woods or grasslands - agricultural land, vacant sites, airfields, land along the edge of highways, etc. American Kestrels usually defend a territory of approximately one-half square mile.

Those kestrels that are found in the northern range, above latitude 45 degrees north, are highly migratory. Those south of 35 degrees north are mostly year-round residents.In Oregon, American Kestrels are most abundant between March and September, although some are seen all year long.

Prey consists mostly of small rodents, reptiles, insects and an occasional small bird, hence the common name of “Sparrowhawk." American Kestrels have been photographed killing prey as large as a wood rat!

Hunting method
American Kestrels hunt by openly skimming over the countryside or “hovering” over a spot in a field waiting for their prey.

Breeding information
Most do not gain access to a mate and nesting territory until they are two years old. Males tend to establish their nesting territory first, then the females join them. At first, the females are loosely bonded to a particular mate. They move about between two or more males before settling down with one. Kestrels prefer tree cavities as nest sites, but will also use potholes or crannies in a cliff, enclosed space in a building, or an abandoned nest from another bird. They will also readily accept nesting boxes. The availability of suitable tree cavities may be the chief density-limiting factor on breeding populations. Since they do not make their own holes, they depend on natural cavities or holes built by other birds; as a result, they have to compete with woodpeckers, owls, squirrels, etc.

Courtship is simple and consists chiefly of aerial maneuvers and noisy cries by the male in pursuit of the female. American Kestrels have been seen first to mate with the birds facing one another and slowly bobbing their heads and tails while the female keeps up a continuous low call. Courtship behavior usually begins with the onset of spring. After mating, the male brings food to the female in the nest and she begins to cache any extra. Depending on their range, eggs may be laid from mid-April through early June. The female can lay 3-7 buff, with reddish-brown, marked eggs, but typically 4 or 5 are laid.  Incubation lasts about 30 days, and the young begin to fledge at 27-34 days.

The cry of an American Kestrel is a fairly high pitched “qui, qui, qui” or a short, shrill chatter “ki-wee, ki-wee, ki-wee.”

American Kestrels are able to hover. Many birds can hover for a short period of time, but few can sustain it for long since hovering is an energy-draining exercise. Prolonged hovering is mainly limited to specialists such as the kestrels of the Old and New Worlds. Like all falcons, American Kestrels have evolved for speed in flight and can dive at speeds of up to 65 m.p.h. To achieve this speed, the bird's wings are slender and pointed and it is amazingly light, weighing only about 1/4 pound!

The American Kestrel is listed as a species of "least concern" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List.

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