The term kestrel (from French: crécerelle, derivative from crécelle, i.e. ratchet) is the common name given to several species of predatory birds from the falcon genus Falco. Kestrels are most easily distinguished by their typical hunting behaviour which is to hover at a height of around 10–20 metres (35–65 ft) over open country and swoop down on ground prey, usually small mammals, lizards or large insects, while other falcons are more adapted for active hunting during flight. Kestrels are notable for usually having mostly brown in their plumage.[citation needed]

Falco naumanni, Negev.jpg
Male common kestrel feeding his chicks in Negev desert
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Falconidae
Subfamily: Falconinae
Genus: Falco
Linaaeus, 1758

See text.


A juvenile American kestrel perched on the roof of a car in Boston

Most species termed kestrels appear to form a distinct clade among the falcons, as suggested by comparison of mtDNA cytochrome b sequence data [1] and morphology. This seems to have diverged from other Falco around the MiocenePliocene boundary (Messinian to Zanclean, or about 7–3.5 mya). The most basal "true" kestrels are three species from Africa and its surroundings which lack a malar stripe, and in one case have—like other falcons but unlike other true kestrels—large areas of grey in their wings.

Approximately during the Gelasian age (Late Pliocene or Early Pleistocene, around 2.5–2 mya), the main lineage of true kestrels emerged; this contains the species characterized by a malar stripe. This too seems to have evolved in Africa and subsequently spread across the Old World until they reached Australia some time during the Middle Pleistocene, less than one million years ago. This group contains several taxa found on Indian Ocean islands. A group of three predominantly grey species from Africa and Madagascar are usually considered kestrels due to their general shape and habits, but are probably distinct from the true kestrels as outlined above.

Common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

The American kestrel is the only New World species termed "kestrel". The molecular data of Groombridge[1] as well as morphological peculiarities (like grey wings in males and a black ear-spot) and biogeography, strongly support the view that this species, among the Falco falcons, is not a kestrel at all in the phylogenetic sense but perhaps closer to the hobbies. Other recent DNA analysis takes a similar view that the American kestrel is not a true kestrel, but rather than being linked to the hobbies is more likely genetically more closely related to the larger American falcons such as the peregrine falcon,[2] the aplomado falcon, and prairie falcon.[3] Though the species has not been renamed as a result of these genetic analyses, it is thus likely a descendant of archaic larger falcon ancestors evolved through a process of convergent evolution to fit a similar small prey niche in the ecosystem as the true kestrels.


Common kestrel in Iran

Malar-striped clade or common kestrel group

Basal lineage(s) of true kestrels

African grey kestrels (a more distant group)

American kestrel


  1. ^ a b Groombridge, Jim J.; Jones, Carl G.; Bayes, Michelle K.; van Zyl, Anthony J.; Carrillo, José; Nichols, Richard A.; Bruford, Michael W. (2002). "A molecular phylogeny of African kestrels with reference to divergence across the Indian Ocean". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 25 (2): 267–277. doi:10.1016/S1055-7903(02)00254-3. PMID 12414309.
  2. ^ Wink, M., and H. Sauer-Gürth, 2004, "Phylogenetic relationships in diurnal raptors based on nucleotide sequences of mitochondrial and nuclear marker genes", pp. 483-498 in R.D. Chancellor and B.-U. Meyburg (eds.), Raptors Worldwide, World Working Group on Birds of Prey, Berlin.
  3. ^ Griffiths, C., 1999, "Phylogeny of the Falconidae Inferred from Molecular and Morphological Data", The Auk 116(1):116-130.

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