American Kestrel in North Carolina, South Carolina Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida

The American Kestrel gracefully commands attention on high perches and open habitats in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. The smallest falcon in the Southeast corner of the United States is represented by two distinct subspecies that share similar habitats but separate when breeding time arrives. Join me on a journey through the unique behaviors, appearance, and conservation challenges of the American Kestrel in the Southeast. As we explore the nuances of resident and migratory populations, we delve into the efforts dedicated to ensuring the continued presence and well-being of these raptors.

Two types (Subspecies) of American in Southeastern United States

Among the 17  subspecies of the American Kestrel recognized in the Americas, two occur in the Southeastern United States.

These two subspecies of kestrels boast contrasting ranges. One is widespread ranging throughout North America stretching from Canada to Mexico. The widespread subspecies performs migratory journeys covering distances of as long as 1,500 miles!

The other subspecies, the Southeastern Kestrel is restricted to Florida and other nearby states and it is a year-round resident in the region. These two types of kestrel have similar appearance and may be challenging to tell them apart in the field.

1. The resident Southeastern American Kestrel (Falco sparverius paulus)

The Southeastern American Kestrel thrives year-round in the sunny states of the south. Its range spans Florida, coastal Georgia and South Carolina, patches of Louisiana, and parts of Alabama and Mississippi.

Throughout the year it can be spotted perched on utility wires, dead branches of trees, and even fence poles looking down and ready to divebomb after grasshoppers, lizards, small birds, and even small snakes.

Sadly, this unique kestrel faced population decline due to habitat loss and pesticide use. Fortunately, recovery efforts like nest box programs are showing promising results.

2. The migratory American Kestrel (Falco sparverius sparverius)

While not a permanent resident, this kestrel visits North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida       during winter (September to April), adding in numbers to the year-round residents in the States where the Southeastern Kestrel is a year-round resident.  

Distinguishing Resident and Migratory American Kestrels in the Southeast

Two male American Kestrels photographed in Florida. Based on the plumage differences and time of the year, the bird on the left (photographed in January) is a male of the migratory subspecies. The male on the right has a plumaje consistent with the resident Southeastern Kestrel’s and was photographed in Florida in the month of July when all migratory kestrels have left the Southeast. The bird on the right almost certainly belongs to the resident subspecies. Photos: Keith Watson (left) and Photofoolery (right).

The Southeastern American Kestrel is often confused with its slightly larger migratory counterpart. Field biologists and birders note potential differences in underpart markings of male Southeastern American Kestrels, but this varies. Spotting these distinctions with the naked eye is challenging due to their similarity and variation in the two subspecies.

To reliably tell them apart the two kestrels in the Southeastern Region, focus on the timing of sightings. If observed in Florida from May to July, it’s likely a Southeastern American Kestrel, as northern migrants are absent during this period.

Plumage Differences:

Resident Kestrel (F. s. paulus)

  • Generally smaller with a larger beak.
  • Underparts may be sparsely marked, with spots absent or confined to the sides.
  • Immaculate belly and breast, with variable markings.
  • Distinctive subterminal black band on the tail, which may be narrower in comparison.

Migratory Kestrel (F. s. sparverius)

  • Slightly larger with a smaller beak.
  • More extensive dorsal barring in both sexes.
  • Ventral markings with narrow shaft-streaks on the upper breast, gradually becoming heavier, rounder spots on flanks. Much paler ventrally

Behavioral Contrasts

  • Residents are more likely to stay in the Southeast year-round, while migratory kestrels are present only during winter.
  • Migratory kestrels may display more pronounced flight patterns, characterized by deep wing beats and a proportionally longer tail.
  • Residents might exhibit territorial behavior, especially during the breeding season.

Yearly Presence:

  • Residents are more consistently present throughout the year, maintaining territories and displaying breeding behaviors during the appropriate season.
  • Migratory kestrels may be more transient, arriving in the Southeast during specific times, such as winter, and then departing for breeding grounds in the north.

Range of the two American Kestrels in the Southeast Region

Two maps showing the occurrence of American Kestrel during the breeding and nonbreeding seasons. During the peek of the breeding season of 17 May through 9 August there is a concentration of nesting activity in Florida and patchy nesting activity in other Southern States. During the peak of the non-breeding season of 15 November through 22 February, migratory kestrel concentrate along coastal areas o the southeastern states and all of Florida. Maps generated by eBird Science.

The two American Kestrel subspecies overlap in part of the year across the diverse landscapes of the Southeast. Let’s dive into their geographic distribution:

1. The Resident Southeastern American Kestrel is found throughout the entire state of Florida. These kestrels extend their range northward along the Atlantic coast, finding pockets of suitable habitat in coastal Georgia and South Carolina. Beyond the coast, their distribution becomes fragmented. Look for them in isolated pockets of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, especially in open pine woodlands and agricultural areas.

2. The migratory American Kestrel 

These kestrels are like snowbirds, arriving in the Southeast around September and departing by April. Their range encompasses all the Southeastern states.

During their stay, they favor open habitats, often seen perched on power lines. Look for them hunting in all the southern states including the more northerly ones in the region such as Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia. During the winter, they frequent high perches in agricultural fields and grasslands, scanning for unsuspecting prey below.

Breeding status

The inquiry into the breeding status of the American Kestrel in the Southeast unveils a narrative of contrasting tales between two subspecies.

1. The Southeastern American Kestrel:  A Year-round Resident stays put year-round and breeds throughout the State of Florida. It also extends its breeding range along the Atlantic coast into Georgia and South Carolina, finding pockets of suitable habitat in coastal dunes, salt marshes, and longleaf pine forests.

Scattered populations breed in parts of Alabama and Mississippi, and Louisiana where it favors open pine woodlands and agricultural areas. Their resident lifestyle allows them to adapt their breeding routines to seasonal prey fluctuations. Ample food sources throughout the year eliminate the need for long-distance journeys.

2. The migratory American Kestrel: The Winter visitor 

The migratory kestrel follows the changing seasons like clockwork. They show up in the Southeast in September and stay through April. Based on records of their presence during the breeding months (see map above) the migratory kestrels’ breeding range include the northern states, south to the central and northern reaches of Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Arkansas, and Kentucky. It is unclear if the two resident and migratory kestrels in the Southeast breed in the same area in some states.

Habitat and Behavior of American Kestrels in Southeast

Typical habitat of the American Kestrel in the Southeastern United States.

The American Kestrel, in its two distinct Southeast subspecies, carves a niche for itself across diverse landscapes of the Southeast. 

Overall, kestrels favor open areas with short vegetation and scattered trees. These clear views provide them with unobstructed scanning grounds for their unsuspecting prey. Think fields, meadows, savannas, and even golf courses!

Tall structures like telephone poles, power lines, and dead snags serve as their observation posts. From these vantage points, they survey their domain, patiently waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

While open spaces reign supreme, kestrels don’t shy away from the occasional foray into forested edges. The transition zone between woods and fields offers hunting opportunities and abundant prey.

Habitat preferences of resident vs Migratory 

Both resident and migratory kestrels show a good deal of overlap in their habitat use, but some differences are noticed.

The resident Southeast Kestrel thrives in fire-maintained pine savannas and open woodlands. These habitats provide them with ideal hunting grounds and nesting cavities in dead snags.

The migratory Kestrel, during its winter stay in the Southeast, takes advantage of agricultural fields and grasslands. With their abundant insect and rodent populations, these open landscapes offer plenty of food.

Hunting Prowess

Hovering: Observing a kestrel in motion is truly a captivating spectacle. They hover mid-air, wings beating rapidly, scanning the ground below with their keen eyes. This “kestrel hover” allows them to pinpoint prey with laser precision.

Dive Bombing: Once their target is locked, kestrels unleash a dive, folding their wings and plummeting at high speed. This aerial ambush leaves their prey little chance of escape.

Diverse diet: Their diet reflects their adaptable nature. Kestrels feast on a diverse menu of insects, lizards, small birds, small mammals, and even the occasional snake. They readily adjust their hunting techniques based on the prey at hand.

American kestrels sometimes cache leftover prey

They stash their extra meals in hidden nooks like fence posts or tree cavities, ensuring a snack for later. Caching food is more often done by the male during the breeding season. Males can stack prey at a location known to the female Kestrel where she can retrieve food for the chicks.

What attracts two types of kestrels to the Southeast 

Effect of the Temperature: The resident Southeast Kestrel’s year-round stay is partially driven by the region’s mild climate. Food shortages, a major driver of migration, are less of a concern compared to colder northern regions.

The migratory Kestrel’s instincts lead them south in search of plentiful food sources during the colder months. The abundance of insects and rodents in the Southeast provides a winter buffet.

American Kestrel Conservation Challenges in the Southeast 

The American Kestrel faces challenges for its future in the Southeast: 

  • Habitat Loss: The expansion of human development, like urbanization and agriculture, fragments and destroys vital open habitats – kestrels’ hunting grounds and nesting sites. Loss of fire-maintained pine savannas, a crucial habitat for the Southeast Kestrel, is particularly concerning.
  • Pesticides and Pollutants: Persistent pesticides can accumulate in kestrels through the food chain, impacting their reproductive success and survival rates. Other pollutants, like industrial emissions and lead from hunting, also pose threats.
  • Collisions and Predation: Kestrels face the unfortunate risk of collisions with vehicles and power lines. Additionally, increased populations of certain predators, like owls and hawks, can pose a threat to kestrel nesting success.
  • Climate Change: The changing climate brings uncertainties. Shifts in prey availability and weather patterns could impact kestrel migration patterns and breeding success.

A Beacon of Hope:

Fortunately, numerous conservation efforts are underway to combat these threats:

  • Habitat Restoration: Programs are actively restoring and managing fire-maintained pine savannas and other open habitats, creating corridors for kestrels and ensuring access to essential resources.
  • Nest Box Programs: Artificial nest boxes provide alternative nesting sites for kestrels where natural cavities are scarce. Monitoring of these boxes helps researchers track populations and breeding success.
  • Public Education: Raising awareness about the threats kestrels face and their ecological importance encourages public support for conservation initiatives and promotes responsible land management practices.
  • Research and Monitoring: Ongoing research into kestrel population dynamics, habitat use, and threats inform conservation strategies and help target future efforts effectively.

Success Stories:

These efforts are already showing signs of success. The Southeastern American Kestrel, once listed as threatened in Florida, has seen population increases thanks to robust habitat restoration and nest box programs. Similar initiatives are showing promise in other Southeast states.

Challenges Remain:

While the conservation outlook for kestrels in the Southeast is cautiously optimistic, significant challenges persist. Continued habitat loss, the potential for emerging threats, and the unpredictable impacts of climate change require vigilant monitoring and adaptation of conservation strategies.

Join the Fight:

Everyone can play a role in securing a bright future for the American Kestrel in the Southeast. Supporting conservation organizations, advocating for responsible land management practices, and promoting awareness about these magnificent birds can make a difference.

Conservation Efforts Across Southeastern States

american kestrel nest box
Providing artificial nesting sites in places where natural nests are scarce has proven to be highly beneficial for the American Kestrel.

Diving Deeper into Kestrel Conservation Across the Southeast:

Let’s take a state-by-state look at specific conservation initiatives and research efforts protecting the American Kestrel, along with ways you can get involved:


  • Initiative: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Southeast American Kestrel Nest Box Program provides essential nesting cavities and monitors breeding success to inform conservation strategies.
  • Research: The University of Florida is studying the use of nest boxes by kestrels and the impacts of habitat loss on their populations.
  • Get Involved: Volunteer with the nest box program, donate to support research, or become a citizen scientist and report kestrel sightings.


  • Initiative: The Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program restores and manages key kestrel habitats like open pine woodlands.
  • Research: The Savannah River Ecology Laboratory is investigating the effects of prescribed fire on kestrel prey abundance and nesting success.
  • Get Involved: Participate in habitat restoration projects, support advocacy efforts for responsible land management, and spread awareness about kestrel conservation in Georgia.

South Carolina:

  • Initiative: The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ Partners in Wildlife program provides landowners with resources and incentives to manage their land for kestrels and other wildlife.
  • Research: Clemson University is studying the impacts of agricultural practices on kestrel populations and potential mitigation strategies.
  • Get Involved: Join a local birdwatching group, participate in surveys to monitor kestrel populations, and encourage sustainable farming practices in your community.

Beyond State Lines:

  • National Organizations: The American Kestrel Partnership coordinates research and conservation efforts across the U.S., and The Peregrine Fund monitors kestrel populations and manages nest boxes through its Adopt-A-Box program.
  • Citizen Science: eBird offers a platform to report kestrel sightings, contributing valuable data to researchers and conservationists.
  • Spread the Word: Share information about kestrel conservation on social media, organize educational events in your community, and encourage others to support kestrel-friendly practices.


  • 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.


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