Species of the day: Kestrel

23 April 2020 | Posted in James Duncan , Birds
Species of the day: Kestrel
Kestrel - male © James Duncan

James Duncan

Learning and Engagement Officer

It's thought-provoking to consider that a mere half century ago the Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) was likely to be the only Bird of Prey regularly seen across Britain. The persecution of raptors has unfortunately been ongoing for millennia, increasing dramatically in the nineteenth century following the advent of game hunting. Fast forward to the late 1950's and the use of organochlorine pesticides began to take a huge toll, certainly until its complete ban in 1984. Though it suffered extensively in line with other species, the Kestrel was the one bird of prey you stood a good chance of spotting, most likely hovering above a roadside verge - its colloquial name of 'motorway hawk' reflecting this. It should however be noted that this term assigns the kestrel to the wrong family, as it is in fact a Falcon, not a Hawk. Now overtaken by the Common Buzzard as our most numerous raptor, along with the Sparrowhawk it's the only bird of prey to be found here with numbers in five figures, showing just how small raptor populations truly are. It's sad to say but numbers continue to decline, most likely owing to a dependence on agricultural land and loss of suitable nesting sites. The Kestrel is heavily reliant on a diet of small mammals, in particular the Short-tailed (Field) Vole - the sensitive management of grassland and rough field margins is imperative to maintaining populations of these mammals, though unfortunately our tidy living habits typically maintain quite the opposite.

Though truly a 'vole specialist,' the Kestrel is a surprisingly adaptable hunter, probably one of the key reasons for its widespread, if still declining distribution. It'll often hunt larger mammals ranging from rats to rabbits, smaller bird species, earthworms, lizards and a variety of insects, the diversity of diet particularly important for birds living close to, or even in the middle of, urban areas. Remarkably, considering its diminutive stature, the Kestrel will often rob both Barn and Short-eared Owls of their prey. Paradoxically it was seen as a poor hunter in the Middle Ages, assigned the very lowest hierarchical status in an era when falconry was extensively practiced. Whereas Eagles, Gyr Falcons and Peregrines were assigned to the highest ranks in society, the Kestrel was designated as the bird of the knave, or servant, a bird fit for catching only mice. 

The Kestrel is almost certainly renowned for the one distinct characteristic, that supreme ability to remain stationary midair. There can be no more familiar sight amongst birds of prey than a Kestrel hovering flawlessly, delicately manipulating wings and tail to remain effortlessly in place. Much of the time the bird may not truly be stationery, for it'll match its flight with the opposing wind speed, though if anything this only serves to compliment its mastery of the air. When hunting in this way, the Kestrel's staggering focus is unmissable for the head (and therefore, eyes) move no more than a few millimetres in any given direction. Considering the body may be subject to significant buffering, it's clear the all-round coordination of the Kestrel is utterly astonishing. Many animals give their name to human inventions, particularly in the world of transport. The Kestrel's abilities in flight were deemed worthy of Hawker Siddeley's affections, for their world-famous 'jump jet' was originally named 'Kestrel' during development in the 1960's. It subsequently went on to become the 'Harrier', though clearly its vertical take-off abilities were more suited to the former. The Kestrel's proficiency in the sky has garnered it the nickname of 'the Windhover,' expressed most beautifully by English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his poem of the same name which he described as the best he'd ever written.

"I caught this morning morning's minion, king-

dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!"

Kestrel © Darin Smith

Male Kestrel © Darin Smith 


  • gina:

    06 Oct 2020 13:00:00

    I loved your piece about the kestrel, esp. the reference to the GMH poem.

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