From afar, there are several raptor species which look similar to the American kestrel and are often misidentified. To help you determine if you have seen a kestrel, we are providing you with identification features. Note: Birds that are shown in the hand are being banded for study purposes, and were not harmed. The banding was done with the proper federal permits.
American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)
Kestrels are small colorful falcons, about 9" in length with a 22" wingspan. They weigh in at only 100-125g (3.5-4.4oz) and have a characteristic black stripe (called a mallor stripe) extending down the sides of their cheeks. Males and females are different colors which can aid in their identification. Females are generally cinnamon in color with barred wings and tail. Males have bluish-gray wings and a solid cinnamon tail with a single dark band at the tip. When perched, kestrels often "pump" their tails and are known to hover in flight as they search for their next meal. Click Multimedia to hear an audio clip of a kestrel call.
Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)
Sharp-shinned hawks are small hawks that resemble kestrels only in approximate size. They are 11" long with a wingspan of about 23 "and weigh 80-170g (2.8-6.0oz). They have short rounded wings (not pointed) and a relatively long barred tail (brownish in juvenile birds, gray in adults). Their faces lack a mallor stripe and their eyes are yellow as juveniles and orange/red as adults. Both genders are the same in color, but females are a third larger than males. In flight the sharp-shins fly in a flap-flap-glide style.
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
Peregrine falcons are not often seen in backyards, as their urban habitat and hunting grounds include bridges, smokestacks and high rise buildings. They are much larger that kestrels - roughly 16 " long with a 41" wingspan and weigh 600-1000g (1.3-2.2lb) . Like kestrels, they sport mallor stripes on their cheeks and like sharp-shinned hawks, females are a third larger than males. They are brown and beige as juveniles, and slate gray and beige as adults.
Merlin (Falco columbarius)
Merlins are also falcons, but are slightly larger and appear more robust than kestrels. They are 10" long with a 24" wingspan and weigh 140-200g (4.9-7.1oz). Females and males are varying degrees of brown as juveniles, but as adults, males are gray-blue on the wing, back and tail. Merlins also have a mallor stripe, but it appears less striking than the kestrel's. Their tail will often appear shorter overall in comparison to body size.