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SOUTHEASTERN AMERICAN KESTREL (Falco sparverius paulus)

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Southeastern American kestrel picture
Family: Falconidae

Order: Falconiformes

STATUS: Threatened

DESCRIPTION: The Southeastern American kestrel, a race of the American kestrel, is a small falcon (length 23 to 30 centimeters), about the size of a blue jay, with a rufous tail, long pointed wings, and two black "mustache" streaks on each side of the face. It has been suggested that the head pattern of the kestrel is disruptive and, when viewed from behind, protective in producing the effect of eye spots. The female is rufuous-brown with black barring on the back and brown streaking on the breast. The male has a rufous-colored back and tail, and is distinguishable from the female by his blue-gray wings and black and white tipped tail. Immature birds are similar to adults of the same sex. When alarmed or excited, the kestrel will give a shrill and distinctive "killy" call in 3 to 6 short, rapid bursts.

There are two subspecies of kestrels that occur in Florida: F. s. paulus, a permanent resident, and F. s. sparverius, the northern subspecies and winter migrant. The northern subspecies is usually slightly larger in both sexes and the northern males have more spotting on the breast and flanks. There is a great deal of variation within this subspecies, however, and these characteristics do not always provide reliable distinction. The merlin (Falco columbarius) is similar in size but does not have rufous on the upperparts, and its flight is more rapid and direct.

HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION: The kestrel is essentially an open habitat bird. In Florida, the kestrel is found in open pine flatwoods and clearings where dead trees are found, although it is also found along open edges of riverine systems, coastal regions, suburban areas, and even in large cities. The Southeastern American kestrel is restricted to an area from South Carolina south to southern Alabama and Florida. Populations of the northern subspecies are remaining stable or even increasing in some areas, whereas Florida's resident population has actually declined.

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Exposed perches such as snags, exposed tree limbs, fence posts, telephone poles and wires, or dead shrubs in open areas are frequently used by the kestrel. It hunts by dropping onto open prey from such perches or by hovering over an area and plunging to the ground when prey is sighted. Large insects make up the major part of its diet, with lizards

being a very important food source during the summer. Small rodents and birds are taken infrequently. The nest is typically located in abandoned woodpecker cavity or a man-made cavity. Courtship begins toward the end of January, and from mid-March through May, the female lays 3 to 5 eggs in a nesting cavity. During the nesting period the male kestrel is the principal food provider for the female and young. The female does most of the incubation, which lasts from 29 to 30 days. The female does some hunting during incubation and brooding, the male usually feeds the female at the nest site during this period. The young fledge about 30 days after hatching. The family remains together for several weeks after the young fledge.

BASIS OF STATUS CLASSIFICATION: The population decline of Southeastern American kestrel in Florida appears to have been due to habitat loss through development or clear-cutting, especially the removal of pine snags (suitable nest sites). In addition to the loss of nest sites, the quality of suitable foraging habitat has declined in recent years in response to current land use practices, particularly those associated with highly intensive agricultural operations. Fire suppression and increasingly fragmented habitats also have reduced the availability of natural open areas. As a result of the loss of nesting and foraging habitat, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission classified the Southeastern American kestrel as a "threatened" species in 1978. The Southeastern American kestrel is under consideration for federal listing under the Endangered Species Act but has not yet been listed.

HABITAT GUIDELINES: Southeastern American kestrels are presumed to be present if: (1) documented on site, (2) nesting within a 4 km radius of the project site boundary (Impact Area), (3) the site contains or contributes to greater than or equal to 20 contiguous acres with 75% in pine flatwoods/xeric oak and the rest in open habitat (pastures, fields, powerline right of ways), or (4) the site contains or contributes to 60 acres with 75% in open habitats and the rest in pine flatwoods/xeric oak. If any of these conditions are met, management should maintain certain characteristics as outlined in the Habitat Protection Guidelines: the American Kestrel (1991). Characteristics necessary to maintain suitable breeding habitat for kestrels include: (1) at least 5 snags (dead trees)/acre in trees measuring 24 cm (approx. 10 in.) diameter at breast height (this enhances the site for woodpeckers which create the nest cavities utilized by kestrels); (2) canopy closure <60%; (3) the height of the foraging habitat should be less than 25 cm. (approx. 10 in.) high; and (4) an adequate number of perches should be maintained (or created) to enhance the suitability of the foraging habitat.

Details on kestrel management are provided in the above referenced document. The flow chart contained in the referenced document leads the applicant through the review and management procedure. If a nesting pair is discovered (or Documented and verified) there shall be a 500 foot buffer zone around the nest. All work that occurs within this buffer zone should occur outside of the breeding season and is subject to review. It is not the intent of these guidelines to restrict land development to areas outside of the impact areas. Many activities, including farming and land development, can be designed in a manner compatible with conditions optimal for kestrel breeding habitat.

RECOMMENDATIONS: Efforts should be made to preserve suitable nesting habitat and provide proper management of pinelands, which includes retention of snags for nesting. Nest boxes could be utilized to attract kestrels to otherwise suitable area as a viable short-term effort until acceptable nest sites are established. The kestrel should be assured full legal protection, including protection against taking birds captive.

REFERENCES:
Stys, B. 1993. Ecology and habitat protection needs of the Southeastern American kestrel (Falco sparverius paulus) on large-scale development sites in Florida. Nongame Wildlife Technical Report No. 13. Tallahassee, FL. 35pp.

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