Kestrel kills starling in garden- citizen science to monitor their decline

February 12, 2014

in Birds, Gardening For Wildlife

Kestrel in garden kills starling – what do kestrels eat?

 Many years ago I saw 5 magpies sitting in a large willow tree making a lot of noise at the bottom of my garden. I was curious as to why they were so boisterous and why they were there. Looking out onto the lawn I saw that a kestrel had caught a starling which it has pinned to the ground and was ‘kneading  it’ with its talons and pecking at its head. This I found most surprising as I was unaware that kestrels would kill birds never mind one as large as a starling. The magpies were waiting for the kestrel to either leave with its catch or abandon it on the lawn. Either way I suspected that wanted to steal its kill. A classic case of kleptoparasitism! After 20 minutes the kestrel remained on the lawn with the magpies flying overhead trying to mob it. Eventually the kestrel left empty handed after killing the starling, leaving it slightly eaten in parts. I went out into the garden and saw the dead starling. The magpies flew off. I left the dead starling on the lawn. Quite a few hours later that same afternoon, to my utter surprise, a kestrel returned to the dead starling, probably the same one, landed on the lawn, had a little feed upon its carcass, picked it up in its talons and flew away. I learnt several new pieces of information from this incident, kestrels can and do visit gardens, they can and do kill birds, they will eat them and they will leave their kill to return, they will scavenge on a previous kill and then take it away. This one incident generated enough interest for me to learn more so I purchased Andrew Village’s authoritative book, The Kestrel. Then I found that besides 22 species of mammals recorded as prey items, they will also predate upon skylarks, meadow pipits, great tits, collared doves, turtle dove, house sparrows, young song thrushes and blackbirds. He even observed woodpigeons being eaten, although he never actually witnessed kestrels killing them. Even more surprising for me when I found that they will also eat earthworms, ground and dor beetles, spiders, slugs, lizards, slow worms, snakes, a road killed toad used as carrion and a dead lamb skinned by a shepherd used as carrion. So much for a predatory bird of prey that I thought just ate small voles, shrews and mice!  Oh the joys of wildlife gardening! With this in mind I thought you would find the enclosed article interesting…..with a citizen science kestrel count participation link. These birds are in decline……

Kestrel 470 silversurfers

Curtains for kestrels?

The form of a hovering Kestrel is unmistakable to most of us, but this once common bird of prey now finds itself in serious trouble. Liam Creedon reports

Spotting a Kestrel hovering above the carriageway, oblivious to the traffic screaming by just metres below, can always be relied upon to break up the monotony of a motorway journey.

Rapt in acute, unbreakable concentration, the bird seems to cheat the laws of physics, remaining motionless in the buffeting wind, never deterred from the task of scouring intently for its next fast-food fix of Field Vole.

The incredible hovering technique described by poet Ted Hughes as “steady as a hallucination in the streaming air”, is made possible by countless minute adjustments and is an aerobatic display surpassed by no other bird.

But over the last few years their cruciform shapes suspended above the roadside have begun to disappear. They have disappeared too from our parks, villages, playing fields and un-loved wastelands.

For the Kestrel has quietly, and without much media fanfare for such a well-known bird, suffered an alarming population collapse. The bird has declined by around 30% in the last 25 years alone and is now listed as a species of conservation concern across Europe.

The falcon was, until recently, our most common and well-known bird of prey. Affections for it soared following Barry Hines’s hugely successful 1968 novel ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ which charted the relationship between an alienated teenager and his pet Kestrel. Ken Loach’s film Kes, based upon Hines’s book, cemented the Kestrel’s place in the nation’s heart. The Kestrel was seen as approachable and knowable, unlike the psychotic staring Sparrowhawk and the all too rare Peregrine.

The Kestrel’s dramatic decline is doubly shocking as it was viewed as a species that had managed to adapt to the rapid modernisation of our landscape. The bird lived in our towns and cities and even managed to hunt in the most inhospitable strips of land between our very fastest roads.

The reason for the decline is unclear but our willingness to farm the Kestrel out of the landscape, a fate that has befallen many other species, is likely to be a major factor. Matt Stevens from the Hawk Conservancy Trust explains: “It’s difficult to be certain but there are a number of possible reasons. The most likely is a change in land management. Changing agricultural practices and agricultural intensification is likely to have had a major effect. Increased stocking densities of sheep and cattle on grasslands reduces grass length and results in fewer numbers of the small mammals Kestrels prey upon.

“The reduction of wild flower populations results in fewer insects and seeds which again means fewer small mammals for the Kestrel. Other factors include loss of hunting and nesting sites and widespread use of pesticides, which reduces populations of ‘weed’ species and invertebrates, which then impacts on species dependent on them for food. We have also seen a loss of rougher ‘marginal land’ which previously held populations of invertebrates and small mammals.”

It was this rough marginal land that made our motorway verges so attractive to habitat-starved Kestrels in the first place – they presented long strips of undisturbed grassland teeming with their favourite food, Field Voles.

But can the fate of our Kestrels be reversed?

Stevens thinks there’s still hope.

“A goal of halting the decline and maintaining a healthy population of Kestrels is perhaps the most suitable approach and one which may allow for an increase in the future,” he explains.

“A reversal of the decline of Kestrels is also likely to be reliant on a change in the way the UK landscape is managed. Greater importance will need to be placed on the quality of, and connectivity between, habitats to ensure that populations of all native flora and fauna improve.”

As ever with our wildlife, it seems farmers may hold the key to the Kestrels’ future, but in the meantime you can do your bit from the passenger seat too. The public is being asked to send in their Kestrel sightings to the Hawk Conservancy Trust to help build up the overall picture of how these wonderful falcons are faring.

:: To count a Kestrel visit Kestrel Count runs until next year and is run by the Hawk Conservancy Trust

Article taken from silver

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Marian February 12, 2014 at 9:05 pm

Interesting as always George. How much are they suffering with this dreadful weather? The Somerset Levels will take years to recover and the hunting ground for birds of prey such as the kestrel must be finding their food source extremely difficult.

Regards Marian


nurturingnature February 16, 2014 at 10:05 pm

You are right Marian. Think of all the drowned hibernating wildlife, bees, hedgehogs, etc., adding to the misery.Not a lovely thought at all…. Best wishes George


africagomez February 17, 2014 at 9:43 pm

Great article George, and interesting observations. Thank you!


nurturingnature February 18, 2014 at 12:23 am

Thanks Africa, appreciate your comment. I did have a make a video at the time..VHS! But for the life of me I cannot find it amongst the scores of videos of my kids!!! Cheers George


Rosie February 19, 2014 at 6:57 pm

Saw one trying to catch blue tits in Kilmarnock Willow Tree last week (Cumbria). Quite a comotion!


nurturingnature February 19, 2014 at 7:45 pm

Now that is interesting, Kestrels generally they go for prey that is on the ground….it may have been a sparrowhawk? Thanks for that Rosie! Cheers G


Mr E Mann July 21, 2015 at 12:32 pm

I hd a kestral fly into my hegde scatter the sparrows inside it nd chase them out of the hedge never seen this type of behvior before


nurturingnature July 21, 2015 at 8:38 pm

Probably a sparrowhawk Mr. Mann. Cheers, George


Richard Loxley January 30, 2017 at 8:57 am

Interesting, but yesterday 29/11/2017, we saw 4 Kestrels at one point hovering above the gardens and woods at Albury Heath Surrey. Two were there for about an hour.


nurturingnature January 30, 2017 at 7:56 pm

That sounds interesting. Thanks for sharing that. Cheers George


Charles Barber June 21, 2017 at 2:57 pm

Kestrels thriving in Dordogne, France. This year lucky to have a pair nesting in an old barn raising three chicks. Seem to be bringing lizards and snakes as main food although plenty of shrews, mice etc here


nurturingnature June 21, 2017 at 8:20 pm

Nice one Charles. Great news.Than is for sharing, George


Linda Medine October 16, 2017 at 8:55 am

Would a kestrel kill a woodpecker? I found a large pile of feathers on top of a little mound of wintering hostas.


nurturingnature October 16, 2017 at 9:49 am

Female sparrowhawk would.


Linda Medine October 16, 2017 at 8:57 am

Would a kestrel kill a woodpecker and leave a pile of feathers?


nurturingnature October 16, 2017 at 9:48 am

More likely a sparrowhawk female Linda.


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