Is A Kestrel A Hawk Or A Falcon?

Kestrels can be seen all around North America, and people are often confused about categorizing them: is a kestrel a hawk or a falcon? Bird lovers categorize kestrels as falcons, and here’s why.

Kestrels are common birds of prey in North America, and you can also find them in South America.

People often find it difficult to categorize kestrels and other raptors. Some people believe them to be hawks, while others think they are falcons.

To answer the question simply: Kestrels are falcons, not hawks. 

In this article, we consider important aspects such as taxonomy, physical features, and behavioral patterns to show that Kestrels are like falcons, not hawks. 


Is A Kestrel A Hawk Or A Falcon


Are Hawks and Falcons the Same?

People often confuse hawks and falcons and use the two words synonymously. 

But one can easily tell the difference between a hawk and a falcon, the most obvious being their size: Hawks are significantly larger than falcons, even though they have shorter wings. 

Other differences lie in anatomy. While most hawks have greyish plumage, falcons have black feathers. 

Hawks have round and short wings, but falcons are known for their long wings pointed at the tip. In contrast to their wings, hawks have pointed heads, while falcons have smooth round heads.

The birds also differ in their behavior. For instance, their nesting, hunting, and flight techniques are vastly different. 

Hawks use their strong and sharp talons to kill their prey, while falcons use their beaks. Hawks build their nests on top of trees; falcons prefer holes in trees for nesting. 

Hawks prefer to flutter, whereas falcons like to dive. Falcons and hawks are completely different birds, and you should not become confused because they look somewhat similar.


Is A Kestrel A Hawk Or A Falcon


Why Are Kestrels Categorized as Falcons?

Falcons consist of four groups of birds: Kestrels, Peregrines, Heiro-falcons, and Hobbies. 

While many think that the American kestrel is part of the hawk family, hawks include only two groups of birds: Accipitrines and Buteos. 

Apart from taxonomy, we will talk about many things that make kestrels falcons instead of hawks using the points of difference we pointed out earlier.


Hawks are usually larger than falcons. A hawk may be anywhere between 8 to 30 inches long. Most of the larger species are 18-30 inches in size. Falcons are slightly shorter and can measure between 8 to 26 inches in size. 

Kestrels are smaller than the hawk sizes we mentioned. Falco Sparverius (commonly known as American kestrels) are as small as a bluejay or a mourning dove. They are between 9-10 inches long and have a maximum wing span of 22 inches. 


You can tell the difference between a falcon and a hawk by the pattern of their plumage, even though they broadly have the same colors. 

Hawks bear gray or brown feathers, while falcons have blue-gray wings. The underside of a hawk may have a striped pattern, a feature missing in falcons. 

Male kestrels also have blue and grey feathers, but they look brighter with a bit of yellowish-orange color on their backs. Their breast has white feathers with light brown spots. Their underside has black barring.

Female kestrels have dull, rust-colored feathers, which they use for camouflage. 

Their wings have stripes with a blue color at the tip. Female kestrels are brown all over their bodies. They have brown feathers on top and on their back, while their breasts have cream and brown-colored feathers with black wings.


Is A Kestrel A Hawk Or A Falcon



As mentioned earlier, hawks have smooth round wings, while falcons possess sharp pointy wings. Like all falcons, kestrels have longer wings with a tapering end, which gives them a pointed look. 

Some falcons, like peregrines, have strong flight muscles. However, kestrels have less muscular wings compared to them. This is because kestrels tend to hover more rather than diving.

They do not get involved in long prey chases and put more energy into hunting and killing the prey in a single attack (more on this later).

Head shape

Hawks have sharp and narrow heads, while most falcons, including kestrels, have smooth and rounded heads. 

Both male and female kestrels have pale blue and grey feathers on their heads. You can see two narrow black spots on the two sides of a kestrel’s face or its head.  

Kestrels also have two black spots at the back of their necks. These spots are often called false eyes or Ocelli. 

The use of these spots is not yet clear, but some ornithologists believe these spots help birds confuse their predators

Hunting Method

Hawks use their muscular feet and talons to kill and tear the flesh of their prey. Conversely, Falcons have serrations on their beak (called Tomial Teeth) that tear the flesh. 

An American kestrel eats a wide variety of prey; they can sustain anything from insects and lizards to small mammals such as mice. Hawks also hunt for the same prey.

Kestrels are strategic hunters. They choose a high location to observe their prey. They do not waste energy chasing prey. Instead, they hunt like felines, looking for the right moment to attack when the prey least expects it. 

Is A Kestrel A Hawk Or A Falcon

Hawks can hunt in many ways, but chasing and hunting other wild birds is unique. Kestrels catch their prey on the ground and bob their head and tail just before catching it.


Hawks build their nests high up on tree tops or other higher locations away from predators. Falcons, like kestrels, build their nests in cavities such as tree hollows. 

Kestrels are cavity nesters. They nest in abandoned nest cavities such as rabbit holes, human-made nest boxes, and other birds’ old nests. 

They do not build nests from scratch. Male kestrels spot nesting locations and then attract female mates to these locations to breed. 

Female kestrels choose males based on how good a location they chose and sometimes on the bright plumage of the male. 

Breeding pairs start mating at the nesting location. The male and the female both incubate the eggs. Males also help with the process – they often bring food for the mother while she’s incubating the eggs or providing heat to the offspring. 

Hawks are usually different in this regard; for many species, only the female is responsible for incubation, with the male helping only once in a while.

Flying style

Hawks flutter their wings while they fly in a circular motion but flap their wings while gliding. In contrast, falcons like peregrine are known for their high-speed flight, where they mainly dive through the air. 

The flight of kestrels is one of the distinctive features of the species. Kestrels hover through the air keeping their head still at one position to observe their prey. 

They expand their wings to their tip and even extend their tail feathers to hold their head position while flying.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can you tell a sparrow hawk from a kestrel?

You can easily separate a kestrel from a sparrow hawk by observing the color of their plumage. Sparrow hawks mostly possess bluish-grey feathers covering their entire body. In contrast, kestrels have a spot of yellow, brown, and orange on their backs. 

Do kestrels eat squirrels?

Yes, Kestrels eat squirrels. Kestrels eat a wide variety of prey. They can sustain insects while they also prey on larger animals such as snakes, mice, lizards, and even squirrels.

What did kestrels use to be called?

Kestrels have a unique pattern of flying, which is different from both falcons and hawks. They hover through the air instead of diving through it. When a kestrel hovers, it seems like it’s beating the air. This is why kestrels are also called windhover and windfucker.

Is a kestrel a bird of prey?

Yes, kestrels are birds of prey. They usually prey on smaller birds, insects, and smaller mammals such as mice, squirrels, and flickers. 
They also prey on snakes and lizards. But sometimes, they end up as prey for larger birds such as barn owls, and larger species of hawks such as northern goshawks.

Wrap Up

Kestrels are falcons. Despite many similarities, you can distinguish them from hawks because of their physical features, behavioral patterns, nesting habits, method of hunting, way of incubating their young, and other factors.

We thank you for reading this blog, and please let us know about your next encounter with these beautiful birds of prey found all across the US.

Gordon Ramel

Gordon is an ecologist with two degrees from Exeter University. He's also a teacher, a poet and the owner of 1,152 books. Oh - and he wrote this website.

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