Index of Species Information

WILDLIFE SPECIES:  Falco sparverius


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Falco sparverius
AUTHORSHIP AND CITATION : Tesky, Julie L. 1994. Falco sparverius. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [].
ABBREVIATION : FASP COMMON NAMES : American kestrel sparrow hawk TAXONOMY : The currently accepted scientific name for the American kestrel is Falco sparverius Linnaeus [1,2]. It is in the family Falconidae [1]. Four recognized subspecies occur in North America and are listed below [1]: F. sparverius sparverius F. sparverius guadalupensis Bond F. sparverius paulus (Howe and King): southeastern American kestrel F. sparverius peninsularis Mearns ORDER : Falconiformes CLASS : Bird FEDERAL LEGAL STATUS : None OTHER STATUS : Information on state- and province-level protection status of animals in the United States and Canada is available at NatureServe, although recent changes in status may not be included.


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Falco sparverius
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION : American kestrels breed from western and central Alaska and southern Yukon to northern Ontario, southern Quebec, and southern Newfoundland south to Mexico.  They winter from south-central Alaska, southern British Columbia, and northern United States south throughout the breeding range to Panama [1,2,13,15,25].  Specific distributions of the four North American subspecies are listed below: Falco sparverius sparverius- Breeds from east-central Alaska and the Northwest Territories east to Nova Scotia and south to northern Mexico, southern Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, northern Alabama, and northern Georgia.  This subspecies winters from southern British Columbia to southern Ontario and New York, south to Nevada, the Gulf Coast of the United States, Florida (to Key West), and the Bahama Islands; through Mexico and Central America to eastern Panama [1]. Falco sparverius guadalupensis is a resident subspecies on Guadalupe Island and in Baja California [1]. Southeastern American kestrels- This subspecies has now been extirpated over most of its former range [34].  The current range of southeastern American kestrels was not described in the literature.  Former breeding range extended from Louisiana (except the coastal area), Mississippi, central Alabama, and southern Georgia to southern Florida.  Former winter range extended from their breeding range south to the Gulf coast of Louisiana and to Key West, Florida [1]. Falco sparverius peninsularis- Breeds in southern Baja California from Santana south to Cape San Lucas and in the lowlands of Sonora and Sinaloa.  Winters south to Mazatlan, Sinaloa [1]. ECOSYSTEMS : FRES10 White-red-jack pine FRES11 Spruce-fir FRES12 Longleaf-slash pine FRES13 Loblolly-shortleaf pine FRES14 Oak-pine FRES15 Oak-hickory FRES16 Oak-gum-cypress FRES17 Elm-ash-cottonwood FRES18 Maple-beech-birch FRES19 Aspen-birch FRES20 Douglas-fir FRES21 Ponderosa pine FRES22 Western white pine FRES23 Fir-spruce FRES24 Hemlock-Sitka spruce FRES25 Larch FRES26 Lodgepole pine FRES27 Redwood FRES28 Western hardwoods FRES29 Sagebrush FRES30 Desert shrub FRES31 Shinnery FRES32 Texas savanna FRES33 Southwestern shrubsteppe FRES34 Chaparral-mountain shrub FRES35 Pinyon-juniper FRES36 Mountain grasslands FRES37 Mountain meadows FRES38 Plains grasslands FRES39 Prairie FRES40 Desert grasslands FRES41 Wet grasslands FRES42 Annual grasslands FRES44 Alpine STATES :
BLM PHYSIOGRAPHIC REGIONS :     1  Northern Pacific Border     2  Cascade Mountains     3  Southern Pacific Border     4  Sierra Mountains     5  Columbia Plateau     6  Upper Basin and Range     7  Lower Basin and Range     8  Northern Rocky Mountains     9  Middle Rocky Mountains    10  Wyoming Basin    11  Southern Rocky Mountains    12  Colorado Plateau    13  Rocky Mountain Piedmont    14  Great Plains    15  Black Hills Uplift    16  Upper Missouri Basin and Broken Lands KUCHLER PLANT ASSOCIATIONS :    American kestrels probably occur in most Kuchler Plant Associations SAF COVER TYPES :    American kestrels probably occur in most SAF Cover Types SRM (RANGELAND) COVER TYPES : NO-ENTRY PLANT COMMUNITIES : American kestrels occupy nearly all open shrubland, grassland and forest vegetation types [29,40,54].  In Montana, American kestrels prefer cottonwood (Populus spp.) forests over sagebrush (Artemisia spp.), shrubland, and pine (Pinus spp.)-juniper (Juniperus spp.) woodland [40]. In California, they prefer large tree stages of succession.  For breeding in blue oak (Quercus douglasii) savannah and gray pine (Pinus sabiniana)-oak (Quercus spp.) types, they prefer 40 to 70 percent crown closure[54]. The sandhills habitats apparently provide the most suitable habitat for southeastern American kestrels in Florida [34].  In north-central Florida, southeastern American kestrels nest in longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) flatwoods, old-growth slash pine (Pinus elliottii) and longleaf pine-turkey oak (Quercus laevis) sandhills communities [26,50]. During a 1981 through 1982 nesting survey, southeastern American kestrel densities were higher in former and existing areas of the longleaf pine-turkey oak sandhills association (0.41 pairs/sq km) than in areas of former and existing hardwood hammocks (0.14 pairs/sq km) [58]. Additionally, the sandhill communities, particularly the pine-oak woodland habitats, provide quality foraging sites for this subspecies [59].


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Falco sparverius
TIMING OF MAJOR LIFE HISTORY EVENTS : Age at sexual maturity - Both sexes of American kestrels are capable of breeding as yearlings [40]. Breeding season - The breeding season varies depending on geographic area.  Pairs are sometimes formed from 6 to 14 weeks before laying begins [40].  In Ontario, laying begins in early April [40].  In California, American kestrels breed from early April to early September, with peak activity between early June and late August [54].  In Montana, courtship begins in May [17] and in Nevada, the breeding season occurs from April to July [25].  In Florida, the southeastern kestrel generally begins laying eggs in early or mid-April [7]. Clutch size and incubation - American kestrels generally lay three to seven eggs [17,54].  They may raise two clutches in one season.  The second clutch size is generally smaller than the first.  Yearlings lay repeat clutches less often than do older birds.  American kestrels may lay an additional clutch if the first clutch is destroyed [40].  The eggs are incubated for 28 to 30 days [13,17,25,40]. Fledging - Nestlings fledge in 25 to 31 days [13,25,40].  Fledglings continue to be fed by the parents until feather development is complete, usually 12 days after nest departure [25,40].  The fledglings may continue to stay with parents for 30 days or more [40]. Spring migration - Spring migration begins in February from northern South America and Central America and begins in March in northern Mexico.  In California, most birds have begun leaving wintering areas by mid-February.  American kestrels wintering in Florida begin leaving in February, and almost all have left by April.  In southern states from the Rockies east, migration occurs from early March through April, and in northern states mid-March to mid-April.  On the southern Canadian prairies, most spring migration is in the last 3 weeks of April, but it continues to about mid-May [40]. Fall migration - The juveniles leave the breeding range before the adults [40] and mature female American kestrels generally arrive on their wintering ground before males [46,47].  In warm climates some adults stay on their breeding territories year-round [25]. Additionally, some American kestrels winter in northern urban areas that have a year-round food supply and warm roosting places [40]. In Canada and the northern United States, fall migration begins in September.  Arrival in Florida begins in September and lasts at least well into October.  American kestrels arrive in southern Central America south to Panama beginning in mid-October [40].  Southeastern kestrels stay on their territories year-round [34]. Longevity - American kestrels have been reported to live up to 11 years [40].  However, most do not live that long. Palmer [40] reported an annual average survival of 12.6 months, the oldest bird being aged 9 years, 10 months.  Captives at the McGill University colony live an average of 5 years and 2 months [40]. PREFERRED HABITAT : American kestrels occupy a wide variety of open to semiopen habitats, including farmland and urban areas from sea level up to 13,000 feet (3,960 m) elevation [29,40].  They generally occur in any habitat that contains an adequate prey base, perch sites, and (during the nesting season) nesting sites [40].  In the Sierra Nevada, American kestrels range up to alpine zones, mountain meadows, and other open areas in late summer and fall, but winter at lower elevations [54].  In Montana, they breed at forest edges and in groves, ranging out over adjoining prairies, croplands, and badlands [40].  In Nevada, the highest densities of both breeding and wintering American kestrels are often located near agricultural areas or riparian vegetation that support an abundant prey base.  Nesting densities in these preferred habitats often exceeds one pair per square mile [25].  In British Columbia, American kestrels commonly occupy quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) groves, woodland edges, river bottomlands, wooded lakeshores, farmlands, burns, meadows, orchards, marshes, and bogs [13]. Southeastern American kestrels inhabit mostly open pine forests and clearings where snags occur [27].  The decrease of isolated or scattered pine snags in open habitats used by southeastern American kestrels was closely correlated with the decline in the number of breeding pairs [50]. Nesting habitat - Nest sites are usually located along roadways, streams, ponds, or forest edges [15].  Nests may be reused from year to year.  In Utah, twelve pairs used the same nest site for 2 consecutive years and eight pairs used the same site again the third year [24]. Southeastern American kestrels often use the same nest site in successive years [34].  However, Hammerstrom and Hart [23] found that American kestrels in central Wisconsin did not use the same nest site in succeeding years even after having raised a brood successfully. American kestrels prefer to nest in natural cavities with tight-fitting entrances, or in cavities excavated by other bird species in both live trees and snags [15,24,29,40].  The diameter of 15 cavity openings used by American kestrels in British Columbia ranged from 2.5 to 14.1 inches (6.4-36 cm) [13].  Trees with a d.b.h. greater than 12 inches (30 cm) are preferred [15].  The species of trees used differs among geographic regions [13,24,56,58].  Cavities excavated by northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) and natural cavities located 6.5 to 35 feet (2-10.7 m) above the ground are commonly used as nesting sites [24].  If cavities are unavailable, American kestrels nest in a variety of sites including niches in rocky cliffs, under the eaves of buildings, in old black-billed magpie (Pica pica) nests, in cavities in cacti, in unused chimneys, or in nest boxes [15,17,24,54]. Herron and others [25] reported that American kestrels in Nevada generally nest about 20 feet (6 M) from the ground and seem to prefer an easterly exposure. Of 41 American kestrel nests in Utah, 28 were located in trees (19 in old northern flicker holes, two in old magpie nests and seven in natural cavities).  The species and number of trees used were 18 cottonwood (Populus spp.), 3 poplar (Populus spp.), 3 willow (Salix spp.), 3 maple (Acer spp.), 1 elm (Ulmus spp.), and one apple.  Two of the remaining nests were located in rocky cliffs and the last 11 were found on building tops [24].  In southeastern Montana and northern Wyoming, most American kestrel nests were in cavities of ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) and cottonwood or in sandstone cliffs.  Other nests were in fenceposts, under bridges, and in abandoned magpie nests.  The greatest number of nests occurred in ponderosa pine stands.  The mean distance between occupied nest sites on the survey plots was 0.4 miles (0.7 km) [56]. In British Columbia, American kestrel nests were situated in woodpecker holes or natural cavities in living and dead trees (73%), in man-made structures (23%), and in holes in cliffs.  Sometimes nests of other species of birds were used, including those of belted kingfishers (Ceryle alcyon), black-billed magpies, and American crows (Corvus bachyrhynchos).  Ponderosa pine (29%) and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) (10%) were the most often used species of coniferous trees; important deciduous trees were black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) (19%) and quaking aspen (8%).  Man-made structures included nest boxes (17%), buildings, power poles, and fence posts [13]. Nests of southeastern American kestrels are commonly located in old woodpecker holes in snags 12 to 35 feet (39-114 m) above the ground [27].  Most nest cavities have been excavated by northern flickers, red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), or red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) [58].  In north-central Florida, southeastern American kestrels nested most frequently in longleaf pine trees.  Turkey oak and live oak (Quercus virginiana) were also occupied. Natural cavities occurred solely in turkey oak, whereas all nest cavities in longleaf pine were of woodpecker origin.  The frequent use of longleaf pine in this study indicates that this tree species is particularly important for southeastern American kestrels nesting in north-central Florida.  Turkey oak snags may be important alternate nest sites for southeastern American kestrels and may increase in importance as longleaf pine becomes scarcer [58]. Foraging habitat - American kestrels generally forage in open habitats that contain high perches [29].  They probably use perch sites in tree islands and along forest edges.  They also hunt by hovering over areas of short, open vegetation [15].  American kestrels usually search for prey from elevated perches such as fenceposts, utility poles and wires, live trees, snags, and rock outcrops [15,36,40].  They prefer perches 16 feet (5 m) high or higher to perches over 8 feet (2.5 m) high [22]. Fischer and others [20] found that American kestrels wintering in central Utah predominantly used wire perches.  Poles and trees were used less often.  In Venezuela, 25 feet (7.6 m) tall poles were more acceptable for perches than 6 foot tall (1.8 m) poles [40].  Winter habitat - Winter habitat for American kestrels is generally the same as nesting habitat, except that high elevation areas are not used [15,29].  Several studies have found differential habitat use by male and female adult American kestrels in the southern United States and northern Mexico.  In areas of winter segregation, females often occupy the best habitats which often includes open areas covered with short or sparse ground vegetation.  Males are found primarily in woodland openings, along woodland edges, or in other less open habitats.  This differential habitat use may be due to the males arriving on the wintering grounds later than the females.  The females therefore may establish their winter territories in the best habitats before the males arrive [46,47]. COVER REQUIREMENTS : American kestrels most often select cavities with tight-fitting entrances for nests, probably to protect the nest from ground predators [10].  The need for cover does not seem to affect foraging behavior. When foraging, American kestrels are commonly found on high, exposed perches where they can look out over wide stretches of grassland or pasture to watch for prey [24].  They prefer to hunt in open areas covered only by short and sparse ground vegetation [12,24].  During the winter, the availability of shelters may be a limiting factor.  The distribution of American kestrels wintering in Ohio was closely linked to availability of old buildings and other sheltered roosts [12]. The thick understory created by pine regeneration in cut or unburned forests in Florida may have an adverse effect on southeastern American kestrel populations [26].  FOOD HABITS : American kestrels eat primarily insects during the summer, but also take mice and other small mammals, birds, lizards, toads, frogs, and small snakes.  They sometimes eat carrion [15,40,60].  During the winter in northern latitudes they eat primarily small birds and rodents [17,24]. Invertebrates eaten by American kestrels include earthworms, spiders, centipedes, scorpions, and insects of seven orders, including both larvae and adult forms of Diptera, Lepidoptera, and Coleoptera. Reptiles include five genera of lizards and at least six species of snakes.  Over 30 species of birds are listed as prey:  They range in weight from under 10 grams to over 150 grams.  About 30 species of mammals have also been listed as prey, with a weight range similar to that of the avian prey [60].  About seven genera of bats are listed as prey [40]. Some specific prey items of American kestrels include grasshoppers, dragonflies, crickets, June beetles, weevils, crayfish, snails, small ground squirrels (Spermophilus spp.), wood rats (Neotoma spp.), pocket gophers (Geomys spp.), red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), chipmunks (Tamaia striatus, Eutamias spp.), least weasels (Mustela rixosa), voles (Microtus spp.), cotton rats (Sigmodon spp.), house mice (Mus musculus), and shrews (Sorex spp.).  Many house sparrows (Passer domesticus) are taken in rural and urban areas [40]. PREDATORS : Some potential avian predators of American kestrels include great horned owls (Bubo virginianus), golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), and prairie falcons (Falco mexicanus) [39]. Other potential predators that have been reported preying on other raptor species and their clutches include coyotes (Canis latrans), bobcats (Lynx rufus), skunks (Mephitis mephitis and Spilogale putorius), raccoons (Procyon lotor), and crows and ravens (Corvus spp). MANAGEMENT CONSIDERATIONS : Although most American kestrel populations are currently stable or increasing, there are numerous land use practices that could adversely affect them [25].  Agriculture, wetland drainage, mineral exploration and mining, recreational activities, and general urban development can lead to nest site unsuitability and reduction of prey populations [12]. Additionally, the increased demand for firewood in recent years has reduced the number of trees which are most suitable for nesting and perching American kestrels.  Nest cavities excavated by woodpeckers are seldom present in young stands.  There is also evidence that many of the pesticides used for insect control adversely affect American kestrel populations.  Accumulation of pesticide residues in the American kestrel can result in lowered reproductive success or death of the individual [25]. The lack of suitable nesting cavities has been suspected to be the limiting factor for southeastern American kestrels [50].  In areas formerly dominated by longleaf pine flatwoods in north-central Florida, southeastern American kestrels have declined an estimated 82 percent since the early 1940's.  Nest-site availability has decreased significantly due to widespread logging of longleaf pine, plus the clearing of isolated longleaf pine trees from agricultural fields. Along the central Florida ridge in Lake, Orange, and Seminoli counties, southeastern American kestrels declined with the conversion of the original longleaf pine-turkey oak communities to citrus groves [26]. Nest boxes can provide nest sites for American kestrels in areas of declining availability of natural cavities.  Nest box program goals should include expansion and reestablishment of nesting habitat.  Nest boxes require continuous maintenance so a program of snag management to promote natural nest sites should occur along with a nest box program [22]. Nest boxes are not always the optimal management tool.  Both predation and parasitism can increase after boxes are installed.  Predator guards must be installed on wooden poles and trees.  Annual cleaning and replacement of wood shavings reduces parasite loads.  A major problem with nest boxes is that European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) also use them.  In Iowa, occupied boxes were used by starlings 62 percent of the time.  If starlings are controlled, American kestrels are more likely to occupy the boxes [22].   American kestrels are fairly tolerant of human activity at the nest and can be flushed from the nest and even caught on the nest without abandonment [34].  In Ohio, American kestrels used areas nearer centers of human activity than did other raptors wintering in the same area [20].


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Falco sparverius
DIRECT FIRE EFFECTS ON ANIMALS : Direct mortality in raptors due to fire is rare [33].  Adults can probably easily escape fire.  However, fire could directly reduce American kestrel populations if the fire destroys occupied nest trees. American kestrels have been reported to be attracted to fire and smoke in search of prey [30,51].  They have been observed dashing close to flames, sometimes landing on stumps or fallen branches in thick smoke [44,49].  Low-severity fires probably have little effect on American kestrels.  Landers [32] commented that light winter burning probably does no substantial harm to raptors. HABITAT RELATED FIRE EFFECTS : American kestrels occur in the following 10 major fire-dependent plant associations in the western United States:  grasslands, semidesert shrub-grasslands, sagebrush (Artemisia spp.)-grasslands, chaparral, pinyon-juniper (Pinus spp.-Juniperus spp.) woodland, ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, spruce-fir (Picea spp.-Abies spp.), redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), and giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) forests [33].  American kestrels occur in fire-dependent longleaf pine communities in the eastern United States [26,58]. Although fire may reduce potential nest trees, it may also create snags for nest and perch sites and enhance the foraging habitat of American kestrels.  In the Sierra Nevada, nesting American kestrels were two to three times more numerous in a burned-over forest than in an unburned forest nearby.  This difference was attributed to the greater availability of nest cavities in the burned forest [4].  At Sagehen Creek, California, American kestrels breed (but do not winter) in burned forests and along edges between sagebrush and forest habitats.  American kestrels do not use areas of thick cover because they require an open understory in which to maneuver and visually locate prey.  American kestrels often use fresh burns when foraging due to increased prey visibility [16,32,49].  A decrease in the frequency of ground fires leads to an increase in vegetative cover and, therefore, has a negative impact on habitat quality for American kestrels [4,26].  In the Sierra Nevada, Balgooyen [4] found that open areas created by a severe fire in ponderosa pine and lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta)-red fir (Abies magnifica) forests provided only temporary habitat for American kestrels.  Eleven to twelve years after the fire, brush vegetation including deerbrush (Ceanothus integerrimus) and snowbrush ceanothus (C. velutinus) formed dense cover in the burned areas [4]. American kestrels are favored by fires that open up or clear pinyon-juniper woodlands [35].  Raptors associated with pinyon-juniper woodlands depend upon edges of openings created by fire and scattered islands of unburned woodlands [16].  In pinyon-juniper woodlands on the Humboldt National Forest, California, American kestrels were observed only on burned areas and only during the second season.  Surveys were conducted in only two seasons [35]. American kestrels congregate at both controlled and naturally occurring fires to hunt along the edge (usually the windward side) for insects, small mammals, and reptiles [40,49,57].  Howell [27] reported seeing 13 southeastern American kestrels feeding over a "raging" marsh fire. During a January fire in scrublands near Immokalee, Florida, 15 American kestrels were observed hunting along the approximate 492 feet (150 m) windward edge of the fire.  The linear concentration (1 bird/10 m) was a hundredfold greater than that on utility lines in the area that same winter.  American kestrels preyed exclusively on insects which flew away from the fire into the wind [49]. FIRE USE : Prescribed fire can be beneficial to American kestrel populations by enhancing habitat and increasing the prey base [16,32,33].  In the sandhills communities of Florida, fire suppression has caused some sites to have dense understories, particularly of fire-intolerant rosemary (Ceratiola ericoides).  Such sites may be unsuitable for southeastern American kestrels and a program of prescribed burning in these habitats is recommended [58].  Several studies indicate that many prey populations increase rapidly subsequent to burning in response to increased food availability [16,32].  Fire suppression in grasslands was detrimental to small bird and mammal populations due to organic matter accumulation and reduced plant vigor [55]. Prescribed burning plans should strive for creation of maximum interspersion of openings and edge, with high vegetative diversity. Habitats should be maintained in a random mosaic of open areas and standing trees and snags should be conserved.  In most cases, burning plans must be integrated with proper range management.  Reseeding of perennial grasses as well as a period of rest from livestock grazing may be necessary to achieve desired goals.  Burning should be deferred until nesting is completed in areas where impact to breeding American kestrels may occur.  After logging, Benson [6] suggested broadcast burning rather than piling slash to reduce high temperature fires which may be destructive to soil organisms and small mammals.  For more information regarding the use of prescribed fire in specific habitats for the benefit of raptors, see Dodd [16]. An extensive body of research has been published on fire effects on animals in semidesert grassland, oak savanna, and Madrean oak woodlands of southeastern Arizona, including the response of American kestrel to fire. See the Research Project Summary of this work for more information on American kestrel and more than 100 additional species of birds, small mammals, grasshoppers, and herbaceous and woody plant species.


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Falco sparverius
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