An Pocaire Gaoithe
Length: 31 - 37 cm.
Weight: 180 -280 grams.
Wingspan: 68 - 78 cm. Life span: 2-.4 yrs
The Kestrel is one of our most common birds of prey in Ireland, they occupy a wide variety of habitats across the country and can be frequently observed in their “hovering” pose as they hang motionless in an updraft of wind while scanning for small mammals over farmland or the grassy margins of roadways far below. Their name in Irish “An Pocaire Gaoithe”, which translates as “the wind puncher” provides a wonderful image of this characteristic hunting technique, which makes this small falcon one of our most recognisable and frequently observed raptors in Ireland.
Kestrels have long pointed wings, short necks, powerful beaks and strong, sharp talons. Falcons kill by biting their prey, and for this their beaks have a characteristic notch called the “tomial tooth”.
As in most birds of prey, the female is larger than the male. There is a striking difference between the sexes in terms of plumage also. Males are grey on the head, rump and tail, and pinkish red on the back and scapulars. Females are predominantly brown, especially on the head and back and the rump and tail are more heavily barred.
Kestrels are a truly versatile bird of prey, they can use a wide diversity of habitats and landscapes and seem equally at home in remote upland forestry, mountainous and moorland habitats as they do in lowland farmland. They can also use a wide range of nesting sites for breeding, from man-made structures and ruined buildings to trees and cliffs. BirdWatch Ireland have recorded nesting sites in castles, ruined mansions, derelict farmhouses, churches, bridges and even occupied dwellings, as well as rocky outcrops, cliff faces and quarries, but the most frequently used nesting sites are in trees, generally either in old crow nests or natural hollow cavities, as Kestrels don’t build a nest of their own. Specialised nest boxes can also provide ideal sites.
Kestrels are also incredibly adaptable predators. They possess an impressive array of hunting techniques and make full use of their keen eyesight, sharp talons and strong beaks. Although their characteristic hover is the hunting method with which they are best known, they will also regularly employ perch hunting, ground foraging, nest plundering and aerial pursuit and ambush, depending on their intended quarry. Smaller birds, frogs, lizards and invertebrates all feature on the menu, although small mammals tend to dominate the diet. Their eyesight even extends into the ultra-violet band of the spectrum, allowing them to pick up the urine trails of small mammals, thus narrowing down searches of extensive areas of grassland for mice, voles and shrews.
Although Kestrels were not devastated by pesticides such as DDT to the same extent as Peregrine and Sparrowhawk populations during the 1950s and 1960s, as top predators they are nevertheless susceptible to modern pollutants. Secondary poisoning from rodenticides currently provides one of the greatest causes for concern. Toxicology analysis in the UK has shown that up to 68% of Kestrels tested had detectable residues of rodenticides in their systems.
The famous 1969 film “Kes” by Ken Loache follows the life of a neglected boy growing up in harsh circumstances in a British coal mining town, who finds solace comfort in a remarkable relationship with a Kestrel.
When Kestrels hover, even in strong winds, they keep their heads perfectly still so they can locate prey far below with their excellent eyesight.
Kestrels often share nesting sites with Barn Owls, and there are numerous examples in Ireland where both species nest within a few meters of each other. In 2009 in Lincolnshire and incredible situation occurred where both Kestrels and Barn Owls used the same nest box, although there were squabbles between these neighbours, both tolerated each other and breed successfully!
In the 1970s the number of breeding Kestrels in Britain exceeded the combined total for all other raptors, however since this time Buzzard and Sparrowhawk have now surpassed the Kestrel as the most common bird of prey in Britain.
Juvenile Kestrels can disperse long distances from their nest sites once they gain independence. One Kestrel ringed in the nest in 2009 by BirdWatch Ireland in west Kerry was six months later in France, over 700km away from where it hatched!
There are thought to be 13 – 16 species of Kestrel across the world. The story of the Mauritius Kestrel is one of the most remarkable conservation successes. Due to indiscriminate use of DDT as well as invasive species like cats and mongoose which killed the Kestrels, their population was reduced to just four birds in 1974. A captive breeding programme was initiated in an attempt to save the species from extinction and after numerous difficulties this programme eventually started to have a positive impact. Today there are more than 800 individuals and the Mauritius Kestrel is no longer critically endangered
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