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Female on nest. Photo by John Parrish. Image may be subject to copyright.
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Falco sparverius paulus (Howe and King, 1902)

Southeastern American Kestrel

Federal Protection: No US federal protection

State Protection: Rare

Global Rank: G5T4

State Rank: S2

Element Locations Tracked in Biotics: Yes

SWAP High Priority Species (SGCN): Yes

Element Occurrences (EOs) in Georgia: 4

Habitat Summary for element in Georgia: Open pine grasslands with snags, hayfields and pasture lands


Description

The American kestrel is the smallest falcon (23 cm in length) found in northern North America. Both sexes have a reddish-brown back with dark horizontal barring, a reddish-brown tail, a blue-gray cap with reddish-brown center, a white face with a dark mustache stripe under the eye, and a dark vertical stripe on the side of the head behind the eye. The female has reddish-brown upper wings with darker reddish-brown barring while the male has blue-gray upper wings. Her breast is white with wide reddish-brown vertical streaking or spotting. The male's breast is buff colored with some larger dark spots, particularly on the flanks. The vent area on both sexes is white. Kestrels wag their tails when perched and will regularly hover to search for prey on the ground.

Similar Species

The merlin (Falco columbarius) is similar in size and form to the kestrel but is much darker overall and has only a single faint "mustache" stripe on its face rather than a dark mustache stripe and a second dark vertical stripe on the head like the kestrel. Both male and female merlins have heavy brown or black streaking on the breast, abdomen, and undersides of the wings. Males are usually dark bluish gray to black above and females are usually very dark gray to black. Flight of the merlin is usually direct and rapid. The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) is substantially larger (40 cm vs. 23 cm in length) than the kestrel and tends to be significantly darker in overall appearance. It has a white throat with a single, wide "mustache" stripe under its eye. Adult birds have a dark cap, dark blue-gray upperparts, and dark horizontal barring on the breast and abdomen. The undersides of the wings also have dark barring. Immature peregrines are darker brown with a pale brown crown and dark vertical streaking on the breast and abdomen.

Distinguishing the southeastern subspecies paulus from the nominate subspecies sparverius, which winters throughout Georgia and may breed in the northern half of the state, is difficult.  Generally, kestrels found along and below the Fall Line during the May–June breeding season are considered to be paulus.  The subspecies of the birds detected above the Fall Line or during the nonbreeding season cannot be determined with confidence.

Habitat

The kestrel is found in large open habitats including grasslands, pastures, sandhills, and open pine forests as well as in urban and suburban areas. It is an obligate secondary cavity nester that uses old woodpecker holes or other cavities in trees. It also nests and roosts in nest boxes, buildings, power poles and other human-made structures.

Diet

Invertebrates including grasshoppers, cicadas, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies, moths, other insects, spiders, and scorpions. Vertebrate prey includes small mammals, especially mice and voles, small birds, snakes, lizards, and frogs.

Life History

The breeding season in Georgia begins in late March or April when the male escorts the female to potential nest sites within his territory. She chooses a nest cavity and lays four or five eggs. Both sexes incubate the eggs, although the female does most of the work. Eggs hatch in 26–32 days and only the female broods the young in the nest. Fledging usually occurs 28–31 days after hatching and young become independent of their parents within about two weeks. About 10% of nest failures result in renesting.  In highly suitable habitats multiple broods per year have been reported.  Kestrels will regularly nest and roost in nest boxes and buildings as well as hollow cross-member pipes on power poles where they often displace European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). The kestrels are insulated from excessive heat by the nest material the starlings brought into the pipes, allowing them to incubate eggs and rear young in these metal structures. About 85% of Georgia’s southeastern kestrel population depends on these powerline structures at present for nest sites. Southeastern kestrels historically inhabited open longleaf pine and similar forests as well as openings and other open habitats throughout much of the Coastal Plain. Thousands of kestrels that breed farther north move into the state in winter and these birds can be seen perched on power poles and wires along roadsides adjacent to open habitats such as farm fields and pastures. Most wintering kestrels leave the state by early May.

Survey Recommendations

Roadside or power line rights-of-way can be surveyed by automobile, ATV, or on foot from mid-May through July to record nesting activity or identify new nesting sites. Helicopter surveys are effective along powerline corridors that are not easily accessible via the ground. Monitoring of nest boxes on utility rights-of-way or other suitable habitats may also detect birds.  Nests in a forested environment are generally found at a very low density.  Survey transects conducted during the morning through the nesting season may be effective at locating nests.

Range

In North America this species breeds throughout most of Canada south of the tree line and in central Alaska, northern New England, the northern Midwest, Montana, and Wyoming. It is a year-round resident in the rest of the United States except for southern Texas; the coastal areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama; very southern Florida; and parts of the coast of Washington. Resident populations also occur in much of northern Mexico, parts of southern Mexico, northern Central America, and on some Caribbean islands. In Georgia, it is believed the northern subspecies breeds above the Fall Line and the Southeastern American kestrel breeds in the Coastal Plain although this is likely an oversimplification of this subspecies’ range. Breeding bird atlas surveys documented kestrels in 37 counties, with breeding confirmed in 4 counties north of the Fall Line and 9 counties below it. Based on extensive work conducted by Georgia DNR it is believed two powerlines host about 450 breeding pairs.  One powerline runs from Plant Mitchell in Dougherty County through Tifton and Douglas and terminates in Offerman in Pierce County.  The second line runs from Harris County east through Talbot, Taylor, and Crawford counties and ends in Bibb County.  These populations have shown significant declines as the hollow crossarm structures are slowly replaced with newer structures that lack suitable nesting sites. Wood duck nest boxes, hung about 20 feet above the ground, have been used in an attempt to offset loss of these crossarm nesting sites. This effort has resulted in highly variable nesting success, due largely to predation.  Nest box programs have also been instituted on Ft. Benning, Ft. Gordon, and to a much lesser extent on Ft. Stewart and various WMAs near existing populations. More recently 20 nest box structures were hung approximately 80-100 feet above the ground by cooperating power companies.  These “high” boxes have had consistently high occupancy and presumably very high nesting success.  This technique may secure the future of this species if it can be implemented more widely.

Threats

Today the biggest threats to kestrel populations in the state are loss and alteration of suitable nesting sites, particularly the powerlines upon which the bulk of the Georgia population depends. Changes in forestry and agricultural practices such as dense restocking of pine trees, heavy site preparation with broad spectrum herbicides, and "clean" farming practices likely destroy significant amounts of habitat for this species. Use of rodenticides and insecticides may also pose a threat to this bird.

Georgia Conservation Status

Fall Line Sandhills Natural Area, Ft. Gordon, Ft. Stewart

Conservation Management Recommendations

American kestrel populations appear to be undergoing declines throughout most of the species' range.  Populations of the Southeastern subspecies appear to have declined since European colonization and there is concern that this subspecies could be extirpated from Georgia and other portions of its range. Natural grassland habitats that provide natural nest sites are the major limiting factor for the kestrel throughout its range. Providing adequately designed nest boxes has increased populations in some areas. In Georgia, kestrel populations have increased in response to a nest box program at Fort Gordon and in several areas in the Coastal Plain. Providing nesting structures as aging hollow power pole crossarms are replaced will be critical in preventing further declines of this species in Georgia. Electricity generating and distribution companies have been valuable partners in this effort. Fortunately, the kestrel uses a variety of anthropogenic habitats, including roadsides and most forms of agriculture, and has found some human-made structures suitable as nest sites. Providing nest sites in the existing habitats and further conservation of grassland habitats throughout the state will help to ensure the survival of this species in the state.

References

Avian Power Line Interaction Committee. 2006. Suggested Practices for Avian Protection on Power Lines: The State of the Art in 2006. Edison Electric Institute, APLIC, Washington, D.C. and the California Energy Commission, Sacramento, Calif.

Bird, D. M., and R. S. Palmer. 1988. American Kestrel. Pp. 253–290 in R. S. Palmer, ed., Handbook of North American Birds. Vol. 5: Diurnal Raptors, part 2. Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn.

Burleigh, T. D. 1958. Georgia Birds. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. 746pp.

Breen, T. F. 1995. The use of American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) nest boxes by American Kestrels and othersecondary cavity nesting birds in South Georgia. Master’s thesis, Georgia Southern University, Statesboro.

Breen, T. F., and J. W. Parrish Jr. 1997. American Kestrel distribution and use of nest boxes in the coastal plains of Georgia. Florida Field Naturalist 25:128–137.

Maney, P. L., and J. W. Parrish Jr. 2007. Southeastern American Kestrel (Falco sparverius paulus) nesting in tubular, cross-armed electrical transmission towers in southcentral Georgia. Journal of Raptor Research 41:69–72.

Parrish, J. W. Jr. 2000. Possible prevention of European Starling nesting by Southeastern American Kestrels at a power substation in southern Georgia. Journal of Raptor Research 34:152.

Parrish, J. W. Jr. 2007. Conservation and Demographics of Southeastern American Kestrels in Georgia. Georgia Southern University, Statesboro.

Parrish, J. W. Jr. 2010. American Kestrel (Falco sparverius). Pp. 140–141 in T. M. Schneider, G. Beaton, T. S. Keyes, and N. A. Klaus, eds. The Breeding Bird Atlas of Georgia. University of Georgia Press, Athens.

Smallwood, J. A., and D. M. Bird. 2002. American Kestrel (Falco sparverius). In A. Poole and F. Gill, eds., The Birds of North America, no. 602. The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Smallwood, J. A., and M. W. Collopy. 1993. Management of the threatened Southeastern American Kestrel in Florida: Population responses to a regional nest-box program. Journal of Raptor Research 27:81.

Snow, F., and J. W. Parrish Jr. 2002. Significant population of Southeastern American Kestrels in south-central Georgia. Oriole 67:50–52.

Authors of Account

John W. Parrish Jr., Todd M. Schneider, and Nathan A. Klaus

Date Compiled or Updated

J. Parrish.-Breeding Bird Atlas species account: 2010

T. Schneider (modified and edited text): July 2010

M. Camp, October 2010: updated status and ranks, added pictures

N. Klaus and T. Schneider (modified and edited text): 7 November 2019

Nestling about to fledge. Photo by John Parrish. Image may be subject to copyright.
Female. Photo by John Parrish. Image may be subject to copyright.
Male (note the blue wings). Photo by John Parrish. Image may be subject to copyright.
Male (note the blue wings). Photo by Dan Vickers. Image may be subject to copyright.