Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

June 2016

Vol. 44, No. 3

American Kestrel: Can the Decline be Reversed?

Matthew D. Kamm


American Kestrel. All photographs by Sandy Selesky. 

Whenever I drive by an open grassy field with utility wires paralleling the road, I always scan the lines for the silhouette of a hunting kestrel. Too often, though, my glances reveal no more than a flock of idling starlings or a pair of Mourning Doves. By now, it really is not news to most birders and ornithologists that American Kestrels are rapidly declining. According to the USGS Breeding Bird Survey, kestrel numbers are declining an average of 1.6% per year, with annual declines exceeding five or six percent in some regions. The question on many people’s minds is “how did this happen?”

Rarity was not always the rule for kestrels. As with many species, consulting the historical record for information about kestrels is complicated by the multiple common names that were used for this species. W.L. McAtee’s collected Folk Names of New England Birds, which appeared originally in the Massachusetts Audubon Society Bulletin in the mid-1950s, refers to this bird as “Sparrow Hawk.” The kestrel was also, confusingly, sometimes called “Pigeon Hawk,” a name more commonly assigned to the Merlin (Falco columbarius) due to its size. “Killy Hawk,” a name derived from the kestrel’s shrill repeated “killy-killy-killy” call, is mercifully unambiguous.

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