- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular breeding resident, migrant, and regular in winter; the American Kestrel was common during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
The American Kestrel’s breeding range is widely distributed throughout North America, including from Alaska to New Brunswick, virtually all of the United States except southern Florida and along the Gulf coast. American Kestrels nest throughout much of Central and South America. Seventeen subspecies are recognized, ranging from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. The species is locally absent from areas that lack suitable nest sites. Patches of high density are scattered throughout the midwestern and western United States (Figure 1).
Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 11/20 by Partners in Flight.
A short-distance to long-distance migrant, the species overwinters from the midwestern United States to Central and South America.
Primarily a sit-and-wait predator on arthropods and small vertebrates, such as small mammal, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. The species will also hover while searching for prey.
An obligate, secondary cavity nester that relies on woodpecker-excavated or natural cavities, and on nest boxes.
The American Kestrel is the smallest, most widespread, and most abundant falcon in Minnesota. Roberts (1932) said the American Kestrel was “arrayed in a varicolored dress of strikingly contrasted pattern which makes it one of the handsomest of its tribe.” Previously known as the Sparrow Hawk, the American Kestrel is a familiar bird, often spotted on a wire or an available perch site in open country.
Roberts said it was “breeding throughout the state; rather infrequent in the prairie groves, most numerous northeastward.” He added, “Fifty years ago the Sparrow Hawk was an abundant summer bird throughout Minnesota. . . . In recent years it has disappeared to a considerable extent in the more thickly settled portion of the state.” He speculated that the considerable expansion of logging activity and more frequent forest fires had allowed American Kestrel populations to expand into the central and northeastern regions of the state.
Roberts (1932) describes nesting activity from Minneapolis and Cass Lake and from the widely distributed counties of Becker, Carlton, Lake of the Woods, Polk, and St. Louis. Nesting activity included a wide variety of behaviors, from nests with eggs to adults feeding downy young.
Decades later, Green and Janssen (1975) described the kestrel as “one of the most numerous breeding hawks” but “least numerous in the heavily wooded portions of the state.” They added that fire protection had reduced the availability of the burned-over areas that the species prefers in these forested regions. Johnson (1982) completed one of the first reviews of nesting of the American Kestrel in Minnesota. He documented positive nesting from 1960 to 1981 in 29 counties, ranging from Winona County in the southeast, west to Lac qui Parle County, northwest to Pennington County, and northeast to Cook County. Johnson also provided evidence on the importance of suitable nest sites for the kestrel. He placed 14 nest boxes prior to the 1981 field season in eastern Becker and southern Hubbard Counties and achieved 100% occupancy the first year of placement; 9 were placed in suitable habitat, and 5 were placed in previously occupied territories.
A few years later, Janssen (1987) documented confirmed nesting in 26 counties since 1970. These were similarly distributed throughout the state but included Murray County in the extreme southwestern region of the state. Hertzel and Janssen (1998) later expanded the list to 40 counties with confirmed nesting since 1970. The counties included all of those identified by Janssen (1987) except Clearwater County.
The Minnesota Biological Survey has recorded 279 breeding season locations of the American Kestrel during county surveys in the state (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2017). The locations were widely distributed statewide but were especially numerous in the southwest, the southern tier of counties, Clay County, Clearwater County, and central St. Louis County.
The MNBBA illustrated the extensive distribution of the American Kestrel in Minnesota and established it as the most abundant falcon, with 1,782 records (Figure 2). The number of MNBBA records also placed it as the third most abundant raptor behind the Red-tailed Hawk and the Bald Eagle. Reported from every county in the state, the species was recorded in 28.0% (1,352/4,831) of all blocks covered and in 36.4% (851/2,337) of the priority blocks (Figure 3; Table 1). Confirmed nesting was reported in 57 counties. The only counties without confirmed or probable nesting were Becker, Houston, Hubbard, and Watonwan, but all 4 had possible nesting activity. Ironically, Becker and Hubbard were the 2 counties where Johnson (1982) had his high success rate of nest box use. The MNBBA fills in many of the gaps in the breeding distribution previously described by Johnson (1982), Janssen (1987), and Hertzel and Janssen (1998).
The predicted distribution map based on point counts gathered during the MNBBA identified lands with highest suitability to be the open areas of southern and western Minnesota (Figure 4). Low landcover suitability was predicted for northeastern and southeastern forested areas and the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
In their review of the American Kestrel in North America, Smallwood and Bird (2002) emphasized that the species had increased greatly during the 18th and 19th centuries in eastern North America with widespread deforestation and “horse-powered” agriculture. Both provided open areas for foraging as long as suitable nesting sites were available. Subsequently, urban and suburban areas as well as reforestation rendered many locations again unsuitable for kestrels. Smallwood and Bird also suggest that suitable nest sites, available prey, and perch sites in open country may be limiting factors for the species.
In Minnesota, Roberts (1932, 1936) provided little insight into the reasons, besides human settlements, for the American Kestrel being “now much reduced in numbers.” He thought that logged and burned-over areas provided excellent habitat for the species. The use of logged areas was partly supported by Robbins (1991) in Wisconsin, but he also cited Kumlien and Hollister (1903), who stated that if the larger trees were removed, then kestrel numbers were diminished. Chartier et al. (2013) in Michigan stated that prior to European settlement, kestrels were uncommon in the heavily forested areas and probably restricted to occasional openings and edges.
In Minnesota, it seems likely that the American Kestrel was historically common or even locally abundant in open areas that had suitable nest sites in trees, hunting perches, and available prey. These situations likely existed in many areas of the state, except the open prairies and grasslands and densely forested areas that lacked edges or openings. Intensive agriculture, settlement, and logging that reduced the availability of important nesting and foraging opportunities resulted in declining populations. These activities appeared to be especially prevalent beginning in the early 1900s, leading to the species’ decline that Roberts lamented.
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.