The American Kestrel
North America’s smallest falcon species, the American Kestrel is a truly unique and fascinating bird. In addition to being our smallest kestrel, it is also our most colorful raptor, and one of the few raptors that is sexually dimorphic (meaning males are easily distinguishable from females).
Although the kestrel is widespread and common in many areas across North America, populations have been declining since the 1970s. The question of what is causing these declines has proven to be particularly tricky to answer, and it all boils down to the difficulty in determining where kestrels go when they migrate.
So where do birds go when they migrate South? Scientists and bird enthusiasts have been trying to answer this question for centuries, but with very limited success. Up until recently, leg bands were the best tool for figuring this out, however very few of those banded birds are trapped a second time, making it difficult to collect meaningful data.
Luckily, new genetic research is allowing researchers to finally determine the migratory connectivity of bird populations by identifying genetic markers unique to certain populations of one particular species. For the American Kestrel, this means that researchers will be able to figure out where specific breeding populations spend the winter, as well as which migration route they take to get there! This cutting-edge research has only been tested on a small handful of bird species thus far, but kestrel researchers are working right now on building the kestrel’s genetic map, or “Genoscape”.
Once the kestrel’s genome has been sequenced and genetic tags have been identified for different kestrel populations, researchers will be one step closer to figuring out what is causing kestrel declines, as well as being one step closer to reversing this trend!
Podcast interview with the Director of the American Kestrel Partnership, Chris McClure:
Podcast interview with Senior Scientist at HawkWatch International, Dave Oleyar:
Podcast interview with UCLA Researcher Kristen Ruegg: