Kestrels are found in a wide variety of habitats, from moor and heath, to farmland and urban areas in County Kerry. The only places they do not favour are dense forests, vast treeless wetlands and mountains.
They are a familiar sight, hovering beside a motorway, or other main road. They can often be seen perched on a high tree branch, or on a telephone post or wire, on the lookout for prey.
Kestrels fly high and hover in many parts of County Kerry. Their wings spread wide to catch the wind, its long 4 tail fanned out for stability, the hovering kestrel can often be seen hanging almost effortlessly above the verge of a busy road, keen eyes scanning the undergrowth below for telltale signs of a prospective meal.
The kestrel is the only Irish and Kerry bird of prey that hovers, and this habit of staying in one place makes it easier to spot than any other raptor in the country.
There are an estimated 10,000 breeding pairs of kestrel in Ireland, putting this beautiful little falcon in second place after the sparrow hawk as Ireland’s commonest bird of prey.
Adult kestrels are about 32-39 cm (12.5-14 inches) long and have a wingspan of around 65-82 cm (25.5-32 inches). As is common in falcons, the females tend to be slightly larger than the males.
Both sexes have chestnut-brown upper parts and buff under parts. The male is generally a slightly
brighter colour than the female and has a blue-grey head and tail that makes it easy to identify.
Small mammals form the staple part of the kestrel’s diet, although they will also take small birds, lizards and large insects when they can catch them.
In Britain their main food source is voles, but as we only have one type of vole in Ireland, and that is rare, the bulk of an Irish kestrel’s diet tends to be mice.
The Kestrel will hover about 1O-50m (30-150 Ft) above the ground in an area where prey is present. Kestrels are visual predators and have exceptionally acute eyesight.
Their vision extends into the ultra-violet band of the spectrum and, because their prey’s urine reflects UV light, regular routes taken through the undergrowth by small mammals stand out like a beacon from the bird’s lofty vantage point.
If no prey is sighted within a few minutes the falcon will glide to another likely spot and resume its hover. When a potential meal is located the kestrel does not plummet to the ground immediately, instead it drops in stages, tracking the movement of its prey as it descends.
For the final pounce the bird half closes its wings and drops to the ground with talons extended for the killing blow.
Kestrels naturally nest on ledges or in the hollows of old trees, but any likely substitute will be readily used. They even use artificial nesting boxes if they are placed in suitable locations, and will happily set up home in the nooks and crannies of buildings in our Kerry towns and cities.
A single brood of three to six white eggs with heavy red-brown speckles are laid between April and June. The female incubates the eggs for 27-31 days while the male hunts for her.
Young kestrels fledge 27-39 days after hatching, and this is a busy time for both parents as they hunt incessantly to provide food for their demanding brood.
Next time you see a medium-sized bird hovering on a County Kerry roadside, on the edge of the golf course or even above a town park, it is almost certain to be a kestrel on the look-out for its next meal.
If you get the chance, take a few minutes to watch this beautiful bird and its fascinating method of hunting. It will be time well spent!
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