The Nankeen Kestrel Australia’s Graceful Hovering Falcon

Aussie Animals - Profile view of Australian Kestrels

The Australian Kestrel: A Stunning and Adaptable Raptor

The Nankeen Kestrel (Falco cenchroides), also known as the Australian Kestrel, is a small, elegant bird of prey native to Australia and New Guinea. As one of the smallest falcons in the world, the Nankeen Kestrel has captivated the hearts of bird enthusiasts and nature lovers alike with its unique hunting techniques and striking appearance. In this comprehensive article, we will explore the fascinating world of the Nankeen Kestrel, delving into its physical characteristics, hunting behavior, habitat preferences, social structure, and conservation status.

Appearance and Sexual Dimorphism

The Nankeen Kestrel is a small, slender falcon measuring 28 to 35 cm in length, with a wingspan of 66 to 78 cm. Males typically weigh between 121 and 195 grams, while females are slightly heavier, weighing between 115 and 273 grams.

One of the most distinctive features of the Nankeen Kestrel is its pale rufous upper-parts, which contrast beautifully with its black flight feathers. The underside is finely streaked white, with a prominent black subterminal band on the tail. The cere (the fleshy area at the base of the beak), eye-ring, and legs are a vibrant yellow.

Male and female Nankeen Kestrels exhibit subtle differences in their plumage. Males have a pale grey crown and tail with a darker grey tear-shaped mark below the eye, while females and juveniles have a pale rufous crown and a finely barred rufous tail.

Hunting Behavior and Diet

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Nankeen Kestrel is its unique hunting strategy. Unlike many other falcons that rely on speed to catch their prey, the Nankeen Kestrel often perches on an exposed position, such as a dead tree or a telephone pole, and patiently waits for potential prey to appear.

However, the Nankeen Kestrel is perhaps best known for its distinctive hovering technique. It can frequently be seen hovering motionless over crop fields and grasslands, using its keen eyesight to detect the slightest movement of potential prey below. This adaptation allows the Nankeen Kestrel to hunt efficiently in open habitats where perches may be scarce.

The diet of the Nankeen Kestrel is diverse, consisting of a large number of insects, small birds, reptiles, and particularly small rodents like mice. The bird’s adaptability and varied hunting methods enable it to take advantage of a wide range of food sources.

Habitat and Distribution

The Nankeen Kestrel is widely distributed throughout Australia, New Guinea, and nearby islands, with occasional sightings in New Zealand. This adaptable bird can be found in a variety of habitats, including temperate grasslands, open woodlands, coastal cliffs, and even urban areas.

In the southern grasslands of Australia, established pairs of Nankeen Kestrels are often resident year-round. However, many other individuals may migrate northward during the austral winter or roam the arid interior in search of food. The bird’s ability to thrive in diverse environments has contributed to its widespread distribution across the continent.

Nankeen Kestrel Distribution CC BY-SA 4.0
Nankeen Kestrel Distribution CC BY-SA 4.0

Social Structure and Breeding

Nankeen Kestrels are usually seen singly or in pairs, although they can sometimes form loose flocks of up to 30 individuals when conditions are favorable. Pairs are typically monogamous and may or may not remain together during the non-breeding season.

When it comes to nesting, Nankeen Kestrels are opportunistic, utilizing any suitable structure such as tree hollows, cliff ledges, or even abandoned nests of other birds like crows or ravens. They do not modify or add to the existing structure.

Breeding usually occurs in late winter, with the female laying three to seven eggs (typically around four). The female is solely responsible for incubation, which lasts for 26 to 28 days. During this time, the male brings food to the incubating female. Once the chicks are close to fledging, the female will also leave the nest to hunt and provide for the growing family. In good seasons, Nankeen Kestrels may raise multiple broods.

Conservation Status

Currently, the Nankeen Kestrel is classified as a species of Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The species has a large range and a stable population, with no significant threats identified at present.

However, like many other birds of prey, the Nankeen Kestrel may face potential challenges such as habitat loss, pesticide use affecting their prey populations, and collisions with human-made structures like wind turbines and power lines. Ongoing monitoring and conservation efforts are essential to ensure the long-term stability of this beautiful falcon.


Why is it called Nankeen Kestrel? The Nankeen Kestrel (Falco cenchroides) is named for its distinctive pale rufous, or ‘nankeen’, color. This term originates from a type of cloth that was originally made in Nanking, China, which has a similar yellowish-brown color to the kestrel’s plumage.

What do Nankeen Kestrels eat? Nankeen Kestrels have a varied diet that primarily consists of insects, small mammals (like mice), small birds, and reptiles. They are adaptable hunters, using both perching and hovering methods to spot and capture their prey in different environments.

Where do Nankeen Kestrels live? Nankeen Kestrels are found across Australia and New Guinea, with occasional sightings in New Zealand. They inhabit a range of environments from grasslands, open woodlands, and farmlands to urban areas, showcasing their adaptability to different habitats.

Do Nankeen Kestrels mate for life? Nankeen Kestrels often form monogamous pairs, which means they tend to mate with the same partner. However, their loyalty to a single mate for life is not definitively established, and their monogamous behavior might change based on various factors like availability of partners and success in breeding.

The Nankeen Kestrel is a remarkable bird of prey that embodies the beauty and adaptability of Australia’s diverse avifauna. Its unique hovering hunting technique, striking appearance, and widespread distribution make it a beloved icon among bird enthusiasts and nature lovers.

As we continue to study and appreciate the Nankeen Kestrel, it is important to maintain and protect the habitats that support this species and the countless other creatures that share its environment. By fostering a greater understanding and appreciation for the natural world, we can work towards a future where the graceful silhouette of the hovering Nankeen Kestrel remains a familiar sight across the Australian landscape.