Unveiling the key Elements of the American Kestrel Habitat

The American kestrel habitat consists of open spaces with short vegetation—grasslands, fallowed fields, forest edges, even urban parks. Shrubbery in recently fallowed fields attracts their favorite prey: large insects. This article explores kestrel habitat selection, use throughout the year, and adaptations (both physical and behavioral). It also briefly touches on bird species sharing kestrel habitat and some aspects of habitat conservation.

American kestrels habitat. Females prefere shorter herbaceous cover than males.

American Kestrel Habitat

American Kestrels exhibit a flexible habitat preference, occupying a wide range of natural and human-modified landscapes. Their primary habitat types include:

Open Grasslands: Kestrels thrive in open grasslands, meadows, and pastures, where they have unobstructed views for hunting insects, small rodents and birds.

Agricultural Lands: Farmlands, including croplands and hayfields, provide abundant food sources for kestrels, such as voles, mice, and grasshoppers.

Forest Edges and Clearings: The transition zones between forests and open areas offer a combination of perches for hunting and nesting sites in trees.

Roadside Openings: Roadside verges and ditches provide foraging opportunities for kestrels, with an abundance of roadside prey, such as voles and lizards.

Urban and Suburban Areas: Adaptable kestrels have found suitable habitat in urban and suburban areas, utilizing parks, backyards, and open spaces for hunting and nesting.

What makes for suitable American Kestrel habitat

Like in most other birds, habitat selection by American Kestrels is primarily driven by the availability of food, shelter, breeding sites, and predator avoidance.

  1. Food Availability: Kestrels are opportunistic hunters, preying on a variety of small mammals, insects, and reptiles. They prefer habitats with an abundance of these prey.
  2. Shelter: Perches are essential for both hunting and resting. Kestrels utilize trees, utility poles, fences, and even tall grasses as perching sites.
  3. Breeding or Nesting Sites: Natural cavities in trees or rock crevices provide nesting sites for kestrels. They readily accept artificial nest boxes in suitable habitats.
  4. Predator Avoidance: Open habitats with unobstructed views allow kestrels to detect and evade predators such as hawks and falcons.

Essential Components of the American Kestrel’s Habitat

The essential structural components of American Kestrel habitat include:

  • Open Areas for Hunting: American Kestrels are active hunters that rely on open areas with unobstructed views to spot and capture their prey. These areas include grasslands, meadows, pastures, agricultural fields, and roadsides.
  • Perches for Hunting and Resting: Kestrels use perches to scan their surroundings for prey and to rest. They prefer elevated perches that provide a clear view of the landscape, such as trees, utility poles, fences, and even tall grasses.
  • Nesting Cavities: American Kestrels nest in natural cavities, such as hollow trees and rock crevices. They readily accept artificial nest boxes in suitable habitats.
  • Diverse Prey Base: Kestrels are opportunistic hunters that consume a variety of insects, small mammals, birds, and small reptiles. They prefer habitats with an abundance of these prey.
  • Predator Avoidance: Open habitats with unobstructed views allow kestrels to detect and evade predators such as falcons and hawks.
Abandoned woodpecker cavities, particularly those excavated by Pileated Woodpeckers, are a key element in American Kestrel Habitat.

Importance of Vegetation Structure, Landscape Features, and Microhabitat Characteristics

  1. Vegetation Structure: Kestrels prefer habitats with a mix of vegetation heights, including low grasses, shrubs, and scattered trees. This structure provides both hunting opportunities and cover from predators.
  2. Landscape Features: Kestrels utilize landscape features such as forest edges, forest openings, and riparian corridors, as these areas provide a concentration of both prey and perches.
  3. Microhabitat Characteristics: Specific microhabitat characteristics, such as the presence of dead trees and snags, provide nesting sites and perches for kestrels.

Physical and Behavioral adaptations of the American Kestrel to its habitat  

These physical and behavioral adaptations, working together, have enabled American Kestrels to thrive in a wide range of environments.

Physical Adaptations

Sharp Vision

American Kestrels possess exceptional eyesight, allowing them to spot prey from afar, even in low-light conditions. Their eyes have a high density of photoreceptors and a unique structure that enhances their visual acuity.

Agile Flight

Kestrels are highly maneuverable flyers, capable of rapid changes in direction and hovering suspended in mid-air. Their light bodies, well-proportioned wings, and strong tail feathers contribute to their aerial agility.

Long Legs and Sharp Talons

Kestrels have long legs and sharp talons adapted for capturing and subduing prey. Their talons are curved and pointed, enabling them to grasp and control their prey securely.

Relatively long tail

A long tail in birds is associated with maneuverability within vegetation. While kestrels are not known to hunt inside forests, their long tail enables them to maneuver efficiently in tall grass and scrub.

Behavioral Adaptations

Diverse Hunting Techniques

Kestrels employ a variety of hunting techniques, including perch hunting, hover hunting, and stooping. This versatility allows them to capture prey in diverse habitats and under different conditions.

Adaptable Diet

American Kestrels have a diverse diet that includes a range of insects, small mammals, birds, and reptiles. This adaptability allows them to exploit a variety of prey sources and persist in different habitats.

Flexible Nesting Habits

Kestrels readily accept artificial nest boxes in suitable habitats. This flexibility in nesting site selection expands their reproductive opportunities.

Flexible migratory habits

Some populations of kestrels are migratory while others are year-round residents. This flexibility allows kestrels to adapt their migratory movements to prevailing environmental conditions. Their migratory movements allow them to colonize wider regions, utilizing the resources available there.

Caching Behavior

Kestrels exhibit caching behavior, storing surplus prey in hidden locations. This ability allows them to secure food resources during times of scarcity, ensuring their survival.

Is the American Kestrel a habitat specialist or generalist?

American Kestrels are considered habitat generalists rather than habitat specialists. While they exhibit preferences for specific habitat types, such as open areas with perches and abundant prey, they can adapt to a wide range of environments. This adaptability has contributed to their widespread distribution across North and South America.

Kestrels are flexible in their habitat choices and can tolerate a wider range of environmental conditions. They often have a broa diet and less specialized adaptations, allowing them to exploit a variety of resources. 

The Loggerhead Shrike use similar hunting techniques and similar habitats as the American kestrel.

Birds that cohabit the American Kestrel’s Habitat

American Kestrels share their habitat with a variety of other species, forming an intricate ecological community. These species interact with each other in various ways, including competition, predation, and mutualism.

The following bird species utilize the same habitat, feed on the same prey, and are similar in size as the American Kestrel. 

  • Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus): Northern harriers are medium-sized raptors that hunt voles, mice, and small birds. They share similar prey preferences with American Kestrels but often forage in different areas, such as marshes and grasslands.
  • Merlin (Falcon columbarius) Merlins are small falcons that hunt birds in the air. They share similar habitat types but are highly specialized on hunting small birds. See a comparison between an American Kestrel and a Merlin.
  • Meadowlarks (Sturnella spp): The Eastern and Western Meadowlark use similar habitats as the American Kestrel. Meadowlarks feed mostly on insects. They overlap with American Kestrels in their diet but prey on smaller insects. 
  • Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia): While it doesn’t hover-hunt, the Burrowing Owl shares the American Kestrel’s preference for open habitats with short vegetation and scattered trees. It hunts from perches or by walking on the ground, capturing a variety of prey, including insects, rodents, and small reptiles.
  • Bluebirds (Sialia spp): Bluebirds are cavity-nesting songbirds that compete with American Kestrels for nest sites. However, kestrels typically prefer larger cavities, reducing direct competition. 
  • Shrikes (Lanius spp): The Loggerhead and Northern use a similar hunting technique and prey on insects, rodents, and small birds. They are known for their aggressive behavior and impaling their prey on thorns or barbed wire.

As a habitat generalist, does the American Kestrel face threats to its habitat?

Yes, the American Kestrel is considered a habitat generalist but still faces significant threats to its habitat. This apparent contradiction can be explained by the complex interplay between the kestrel’s adaptability and the diverse factors that drive habitat loss.

The American Kestrel’s adaptability stems from its generalist nature, allowing it to utilize a wide range of open and semi-open habitats, including grasslands, meadows, pastures, agricultural fields, and even urban areas. This versatility has contributed to its widespread distribution across North and South America.

However, despite their adaptability, American Kestrels are not immune to habitat loss. The primary threats to their habitat include:

Land Use Changes: Urbanization, agricultural expansion, and other land use changes are rapidly converting natural habitats into developed areas, reducing the availability of suitable foraging and nesting sites for kestrels.

Pesticide Use: Pesticides, particularly insecticides, can accumulate in the food chain and harm kestrels, both directly through poisoning and indirectly by reducing prey populations.

Habitat Fragmentation: The fragmentation of natural habitats due to roads, fences, and other barriers can restrict kestrel movements and isolate populations, hindering their ability to breed and find food.

Climate Change: Climate change is altering weather patterns and ecosystems, potentially affecting prey availability and distribution, which could indirectly impact kestrel populations.

These factors, despite the kestrel’s adaptability, can still pose significant threats to their populations. The adaptability allows them to persist in a range of habitats, but it doesn’t make them invincible to habitat loss and other environmental pressures.

Does the American Kestrel Use Different Habitats in the Winter and the Summer?

Yes, the American Kestrel exhibits seasonal variations in habitat use, particularly between migratory and resident populations. Migratory kestrels utilize different habitats during their winter and summer ranges, while resident kestrels tend to occupy similar habitats throughout the year.

Migratory American Kestrels

Migratory American Kestrels undergo seasonal movements, shifting between northern breeding grounds and southern wintering grounds. This migration dictates their habitat preferences, leading to distinct habitat use patterns in winter and summer.

Winter Habitat: During winter, migratory kestrels primarily occupy open habitats in southern regions, including grasslands, pastures, agricultural fields, and even urban areas. These habitats provide an abundance of prey, such as voles, mice, and grasshoppers, which support the kestrels’ winter nutritional needs.

Summer Habitat: In contrast, during summer, migratory kestrels move to northern regions and utilize a broader range of habitats, including open grasslands, agricultural areas, forest edges, and even wetlands. This expansion in habitat use reflects the increased availability of prey, including insects, spiders, and small mammals, associated with the northern breeding season.

Resident American Kestrels

Resident American Kestrels remain in their year-round territories, typically in southern regions. Unlike migratory kestrels, they exhibit less pronounced seasonal changes in habitat use. Resident kestrels primarily occupy open habitats, such as grasslands, pastures, and agricultural fields, throughout the year. Their habitat preferences are driven by the consistent availability of prey in these areas.

Habitat Use Comparison

Migratory American Kestrels show a more flexible and diverse habitat use pattern, adapting to different habitats during their winter and summer ranges. This flexibility allows them to exploit a wider range of prey and maintain their populations across a broad geographic range.

Resident American Kestrels, on the other hand, demonstrate a more localized habitat use pattern, remaining in their established territories throughout the year. Their habitat preferences are more consistent, dictated by the relatively stable prey availability in their year-round range.

The lack of suitable nesting sites is one of several reasons the American Kestrel has experienced a population decline. Offering nesting boxes has proven to be a significant element in aiding the recovery of kestrel populations.

Habitat Conservation Efforts for the American Kestrel

Various habitat conservation and restoration activities are being implemented to help the American Kestrel, addressing the threats they face and enhancing their habitat availability. These efforts involve partnerships between government agencies, non-profit organizations, and landowners.

  1. Habitat Protection:
    • Preserving Natural Habitats: Protecting existing natural habitats, such as grasslands, meadows, and wetlands, ensures the continued availability of suitable foraging and nesting sites for kestrels.
    • Managing Public Lands: Government agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife departments implement management plans for public lands to maintain habitats suitable for kestrels.
  2. Habitat Restoration:
    • Restoring Degraded Habitats: Restoring degraded or converted habitats, such as former agricultural lands, enhances the availability of kestrel habitat. This may involve planting native vegetation, creating open areas, and installing nest boxes.
    • Reducing Fragmentation: Mitigating habitat fragmentation by creating or enhancing corridors and removing barriers improves kestrel movement and connectivity between habitat patches.
  3. Pesticide Reduction:
    • promoting Integrated Pest Management: Encouraging the use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices reduces the reliance on harmful pesticides, minimizing their impact on kestrel prey populations.
    • Supporting Pesticide Monitoring: Monitoring pesticide levels in the environment and raising awareness about potential risks helps reduce kestrel exposure to insecticides.
  4. Nest Box Programs:
    • Installing Nest Boxes: Providing nest boxes in suitable habitats supplements natural cavities and expands kestrel nesting opportunities.
    • Monitoring Nest Box Usage: Monitoring nest box occupancy and reproductive success helps assess the effectiveness of nest box programs and guide habitat management strategies.
  5. Public Education and Outreach:
    • Raising Awareness: Educating the public about the importance of kestrel conservation and the threats they face fosters support for habitat protection and restoration initiatives.
    • Engaging Landowners: Engaging landowners in conservation efforts encourages habitat management practices that benefit kestrels on private lands.

Organizations Involved in Conservation Efforts:

  1. American Kestrel Partnership: A collaborative effort among various organizations, including government agencies, non-profits, and research institutions, aimed at conserving American Kestrel populations.
  2. The Raptor Center: A non-profit organization dedicated to raptor conservation, including research, rehabilitation, and education programs that benefit American Kestrels.
  3. North American Native Plant Society: A non-profit organization promoting the conservation and restoration of native plant communities, which provide essential habitat for American Kestrels.
  4. Audubon Society: A non-profit organization focused on bird conservation, conducting research, monitoring populations, and advocating for habitat protection for the American Kestrel.

These organizations, along with many others, play a crucial role in implementing habitat conservation and restoration activities for the American Kestrel. 


  • Ardia, D., K. Bildstein. 1997. Sex-related differences in habitat selection in wintering American kestrels, Falco sparverius. Animal Behavior, 53: 1305-1311.
  • BirdLife International, 2012. “Falco sparverius” (On-line). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed November 01, 2013 at http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22696395/0.
  • Johnsgard, P. 1990. Hawks, Eagles, and Falcons of North America. United States: Smithsonian Institution.
  • Smallwood, J. A. and D. M. Bird (2020). American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.