On a cloudy afternoon in November, I’m standing in a clearing in the woods near my suburban Austin neighborhood, binoculars pressed to my eyes, scanning the tree line for a colorful, robin-size raptor. My ears are attuned to a shrill “killy-killy-killy” or a rapid “klee-klee-klee” call, though I haven’t heard one yet. Since October I’ve been checking fields and telephone wires—the best places to look for an American kestrel, the smallest falcon in North America and the most common, with large populations migrating here for winter. Texas is one of the best places to see kestrels, which flock to all corners of the state—from the Rio Grande Valley to the Llano Estacado—hunting our grasslands, agricultural fields, and sprawling suburban neighborhoods for insects and small rodents. I fell in love with them from videos and online research and became determined to see one for myself, but after a few cases of mistaken identity (mourning doves do look a bit like kestrels from a distance), it’s proving to be difficult.

To learn more about these enigmatic charmers, I reached out to some kestrel experts: Maddy Kaleta, a raptor researcher who recently earned her master’s in biology from the University of North Texas, in Denton, and Clint Boal, a professor of wildlife biology at Texas Tech University, in Lubbock. They’ve both been studying kestrels for years and assured me there was still time to see one. “It’s about to get really busy for spotting kestrels,” Kaleta said when we spoke right before Thanksgiving. The birds begin arriving in October and hang around until about mid-March, with sightings peaking from December through February. But this petite raptor is also experiencing an alarming population decline across the continent, for reasons scientists haven’t been able to figure out. So, my search, or “questrel,” if you will, has taken on a new sense of urgency.

With their acrobatic flying maneuvers; vibrant red, gray-blue, and tawny plumage; and spark plug personalities, members of Falco sparverius are charisma personified—in other words, they’ve got rizz. In 1874 American ornithologist Elliott Coues described them as “the prettiest and jauntiest of our Hawks, and yet no prig.” UNT’s Kaleta concurs: “They’re the chihuahuas of the bird world—they’re territorial and very feisty,” she says, “small but fierce.” 

They’re also completely adorable. Unlike eagles or hawks, whose eyes appear hooded and steely, the kestrel reminds me a bit of a cute anime character. It has big, button eyes, punctuated by markings that look like black tears, set in a blocky head that bobs as the bird scouts for snacks. At only 9 inches long—about the size of a blue jay—kestrels have a wingspan of just 22 inches and weigh an average of four ounces (females are a bit larger than males and are more muted in color). They also bounce up and down on their perches and bust a dance move that Kaleta calls the kestrel jig. But don’t be fooled: they are stone-cold hunters, just as ruthless as larger raptors. Those big eyes have ultraviolet vision that makes a kestrel’s favorite snacks, grasshoppers and other arthropods, easy to spot. Thanks to these UV superpowers, they can even see mammal urine trails, including from great distances. Once a kestrel has zeroed in on prey (it usually eats voles or other small mammals, snakes, large insects, lizards, and even small birds), it hovers in midair before taking a steep dive, or “stoop,” headfirst; snapping up its quarry with its long talons; and deploying its tomial tooth—an extra projection on its beak—to sever its victim’s spinal column. 

But this deadly yet cute predator is in trouble. American kestrel numbers have declined by an estimated 50 percent, or about two million birds, since 1970. Perplexed scientists have considered climate change, habitat loss, pesticides, and even predation by the larger Cooper’s hawk as possible causes, but so far there’s been no definitive answer. Adding to the mystery is the fact that raptors have generally been a conservation success story. Bald eagles, for example, have made a soaring comeback: though there were just 417 mated pairs in the lower 48 states in 1963, the banning of the pesticide DDT and the passage of the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s, along with other conservation efforts, helped the species rebound to an impressive 71,400 nesting pairs in 2020. Black vultures, Cooper’s hawks, and Swainson’s hawks, as well as peregrine falcons, have also rebounded thanks to added protections. 

Why are kestrels going in the opposite direction? No one knows for sure, but researchers suspect that multiple factors are likely at play. With funding from the American Kestrel Partnership (part of the nonprofit Peregrine Fund), Kaleta and the UNT team, led by avian ecologist and professor Jim Bednarz, have captured and banded more than four hundred kestrels in Denton County since 2016, studying migration patterns and year-to-year survival rates. Kestrels weighing at least 123 grams can be fitted with a GPS data logger. The backpacklike device fits over the bird’s wings and, ideally, records a full year of migration data; the goal is to “resight” the tracked birds when they return to North Texas from their out-of-state breeding and nesting grounds. But kestrels are clever and difficult to trap, especially if they’ve been caught previously, and the team has only been able to download valuable migration datasets from three birds so far—short-distance migrants from locations including Kansas and Nebraska. The team, now led by Brooke Prater, has also started tracking kestrels with radio transmitters. 

Over in Lubbock, Texas Tech’s Clint Boal has been overseeing a different kind of kestrel project: for the past ten years, he’s run a nest box study, tracking a mix of year-round resident kestrels and winter migrants in the southern Great Plains, with promising results. “The nest box programs are really cool,” says Boal, emphasizing that as cavity nesters, kestrels are “pretty flexible . . . they’ll nest in abandoned houses, the fascia of Target, behind the sign at Jimmy John’s.” Their first choice is usually an abandoned woodpecker hole in a tree or utility pole (or a crevice in a cliff), but if those aren’t available, kestrels will cozy up in a man-made nest box. Since 2013, Boal and student volunteers have built, installed, and monitored thirty nest boxes (in addition to monitoring some natural nest sites) in the Lubbock area, banding nestlings to ID them. Since the project began, the team has recorded an average of 3.4 fledglings per nest—with a total of 447 kestrels having fledged from the boxes. Boal is especially encouraged by the fact that many of those birds have returned to the boxes to raise their own young.

Kaleta, who will graduate in May and recently presented her findings for her thesis defense, told me there were reasons for hope, such as her data showing that annual survival is relatively high (about 70 percent) for kestrels wintering in North Texas, including some birds in low-intensity urban areas. She noted that where there are more people, there are more rodents for kestrels to eat, and that the birds are using man-made structures to roost at night. Bednarz, Prater, and other UNT researchers are continuing the project and will be banding kestrels until they fly off to their nesting grounds.

Boal also feels optimistic about the future of these little falcons. “There are bright spots,” he said. Both scientists stressed that much more research is needed. Fortunately, kestrels are so popular that dedicated citizen scientists have joined the cause, setting up and monitoring their own nest boxes.

After several unsuccessful outings, I finally saw my first kestrel at exactly the kind of place Kaleta and Boal had said the birds prefer: perched on a power line next to a field at Hornsby Bend, a sewage treatment facility in far east Austin that is a mecca for migrating birds. Prompted by a nearby sighting posted on eBird the day before, I knew this might be my chance. It took an hour of wandering around, but when I saw the bird, it was unmistakable. My heart skipped a beat. I adjusted my cheapish binoculars to get a better look and saw the telltale black marks on the eyes. I watched for 45 minutes as the kestrel perched and hunted. Every time I got too close, it jumped a bit down the line, so I kept a respectful distance. I was so happy to have seen this beautiful bird up close that I almost cried. I had found my spark bird—the one that might set a person off on a lifetime of birding—and I couldn’t be happier. 

How to Save (and Spot) a Kestrel
An adult male kestrel. Kestrels are similar in size to blue jays and sport striking black, blue-gray, and tawny plumage.Jason Garcia

How to Spot a Kestrel

Look at fence posts and power lines near open fields. “I always think of kestrels as little blobs on wires; if you see birds on telephone wires, it’s probably either doves or kestrels,” says raptor researcher Maddy Kaleta. Driving slowly down rural and ranch roads is a great way to watch for them, says Texas Tech’s Clint Boal, as kestrels might get spooked if you get too close and “flush off” before you’ve had a chance to zoom in. Kestrels are also well-adapted to urban landscapes—they’ll nest in abandoned buildings and are partial to sports fields and airports. 

Go during the day. “We typically see the most kestrels from eight a.m. to five p.m.,” says Kaleta. This is one species you won’t have to wake before dawn to see.

Check eBird. This app tracks data on birds via member-added sightings, so you can see where kestrels have been spotted in your area in real time. I found same-day kestrel sightings in Roy G. Guerrero park and at Commons Ford Ranch Metro Park, both in Travis County. Density maps from UNT show the Panhandle (particularly the Lubbock area), El Paso (where there’s even a driving route called Hawk Alley), the Hill Country, and South Texas to have the highest density of kestrels in winter, but the migratory hot spots of southeast Texas are also good places to look. And if you’re in the Rio Grande Valley, you’re in luck. “Kestrels love South Texas because it’s so warm year-round,” says Kaleta. Bentsen–Rio Grande Valley State Park and the World Birding Center, which encapsulates nine separate birding locations, are great starting points.

Connect with your local birding group. Opportunities to learn about birds—both natives and visitors—abound, whether you join a local Facebook group or participate in the annual Christmas count from your own backyard. Many state parks offer regular guided walks and other birdwatching events, and local branches of the Audubon Society are excellent places to find information. 

More Kestrel Hot Spots

Brazos Bend State Park, Needville

Between ten and forty kestrels might be viewable on any given day during fall and winter at this Fort Bend County birder’s paradise, according to the park’s birding checklist (more than three hundred species of birds have been recorded here). The nearly five-thousand-acre park, located southwest of Houston, features a rich mix of live oaks, bottomland hardwoods, and coastal tallgrass prairie—all surrounded by water. 

Denton County, North Texas

The area where the UNT team does its tracking offers several great spots to look for kestrels. Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area (LLELA) offers free guided bird walks on the second Saturday of most months. Kaleta says kestrels like the area around the Lewisville Lake Dam and can be seen hovering in the updraft at the spillway. Ray Roberts Lake State Park, near Pilot Point, has regular kestrel sightings as well. North Lakes Park’s disc golf field, in northwest Denton, is also a kestrel hangout. Lake Grapevine, north of Grapevine, and River Legacy Park, in Arlington, have had recent kestrel sightings.

Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, Mustang Island

Kestrels and other birds of prey favor the winter conditions on this subtropical barrier island, and there are plenty of spots to view them, including microclimate-rich Mustang Island State Park and the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, in Port Aransas. The 2020 species checklist for the park gave kestrels “C” (or “Common”) status in spring and winter, meaning visitors are likely to spot one on 75 percent of all visits, and “Fairly Common” in fall (closer to 50 percent of visits). 

Lubbock Lake National Historic Landmark, Lubbock

Part of Texas Tech and one of the locations used in the nest box study, this archaeological preserve’s spacious shortgrass prairie is one of the kestrel’s top choices of hunting ground. The easy one-mile interpretive trail is a good spot to see them, along with Cooper’s hawks, burrowing owls, and more—and, according to Texas author Jennifer Bristol, author of Parking Lot Birding, you could very well get lucky and see kestrels in the park’s parking lot without ever leaving your car. 

Smith Point Hawk Watch, Anahuac

Raptor lovers won’t be disappointed at Smith Point, located in the marshy Candy Cain Abshier Wildlife Management Area, between Houston and Beaumont. Smith Point’s thirty-foot observation tower is the site of seasonal daily raptor counts held in partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife, and the public is encouraged to participate. Around a thousand kestrels are sighted here each fall migration season, with as many as 552 recorded in one day (October 1, 2012).