Quick facts

Common names: kestrel, common kestrel

Scientific name: Falco tinnunculus

Family: Falconidae (falcons)

Habitat: grassland, farmland, upland, urban

Diet: voles, mice, shrews, birds and invertebrates

Predators: occasionally taken by larger birds of prey

Origin: native

What do kestrels look like?

Kestrels have light-brown plumage with dark spots. Males have a grey-blue head, while females are all brown. The species has pointed wings and a tail that appears long in flight and fan-shaped when the bird is hovering.

With a typical wing span of around 75cm and weighing up to 250g, they are roughly the size of a magpie.

Did you know?

Kestrels will sometimes ‘mug’ barn owls, using their speed to steal voles that have been killed by the larger bird.

What do kestrels eat?

The kestrel is a vole specialist, with the field vole accounting for the majority of its diet. It will also take mice and shrews, as well as small birds and occasionally worms and insects. Birds are taken more often in places where voles are scarce, such as in urban areas.

Several hunting techniques are used by kestrels, but the most well-known is the hover. A kestrel will fly into the wind and use its tail and wings to hold its position in the air. Keeping its eyes fixed on the ground, it will swiftly drop to pounce on any prey sighted.

With extremely sharp eyesight, kestrels can spot a beetle from 50 metres away. They can even see ultraviolet light, which is invisible to the human eye. This means they can detect the urine trails left by rodents on the ground, helping the birds locate their prey.

kestrel juveniles in nest box

Credit: Christopher Mills / Alamy Stock Photo

How do kestrels breed?

Kestrels do not build nests. Instead they lay their eggs in natural cavities, such as holes in trees or cliff faces. They also use nests abandoned by other species. In urban areas, kestrels will lay their eggs on rooftops and holes in walls. Normally four to five eggs are laid in April or May. The chicks hatch after around a month, spending a further five weeks in the nest before fledging.

Did you know?

Kestrels are the second most common bird of prey in the UK, behind the buzzard.

Where do kestrels live?

Kestrels can be found across the UK in a variety of habitats. They tend to hunt in open spaces with long grass as this is prime field-vole habitat. The birds rarely venture far into woodland, but will nest and hunt along wood edges.

kestrel hovering against bright blue sky

Credit: David Chapman / Alamy Stock Photo

Signs and spotting tips

Their distinctive hovering technique makes kestrels easy to spot. They are often seen hovering above overgrown roadside verges. Also look out for kestrels perched on fences and atop lamp posts.

Kestrel call

Audio: Stuart Fisher / xeno-canto.org

Threats and conservation

The UK’s kestrel population has fallen by half since 1970. It is not known exactly why the species is declining, but a number of factors have been suggested. Agricultural intensification may have reduced field vole numbers. Meanwhile, kestrels are suffering secondary poisoning by eating voles and mice that have eaten poison meant for rats. Loss of nesting sites, such as old trees with cavities, is also a possible factor.

Did you know?

Kestrels need to eat several voles per day to survive.