On the edge of the motorways and above the rolling fields, there is often a sight that is familiar to many in our country. Hovering over the land, fluttering its wings whilst it searches eagerly for mice and small rodents, the kestrel is a spectacular little bird of prey. As a true falcon, the kestrel was given its latin name, Falco tinnunculus, in recognition of its high-pitched call, and the name literally means ‘little bell ringer’. Although smaller than some other birds of prey, the kestrel is quite a successful little falcon because excluding Antarctica, tundra environments and the deserts, a type of kestrel can be found throughout all areas of the world. In the UK, it is the common kestrel that graces our skies and he can also be found across Europe, Afrcia and Asia.
As is the case for most birds of prey in the UK, the kestrel was heavily persecuted throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Despite the rarity of such an occurrence, gamekeepers would target kestrels as they feared that they had the ability to take large amounts of game chicks. However, during WWII there was a reduction in persecution of this kind and kestrel numbers were allowed to recover. Unfortunately, this respite did not last long as, in the 1950s and 1960s, they declined once again due to the heavy usage of organochlorine pesticides such as DDT. When the negative effects of such pesticides were finally realised, their numbers again began to slowly improve and the kestrel became a common sight in many habitats across the UK. In fact, other than dense woodlands, treeless wetlands and mountains, you can find a kestrel almost anywhere, even in the centres of our bustling cities.
But something strange is happening to our little bell ringers, because again, since the 1980s, their populations have been experiencing declines. Although in England, kestrel numbers have been subjected to fluctuations, with no evidence of any long-term or dramatic declines, since the 1990s in Scotland, their numbers have dropped hugely. Unfortunately, the causes of these declines and apparent fluctuations remain a mystery. More recently, things seem to be going from bad to worse. Between the years of 1995 and 2008, the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) displayed a 20% drop in kestrel populations, with a further fall of 36% between 2008 and 2009. The instability of their populations along with the apparent decline and their adverse conservation status throughout Europe, means that our kestrels sit rather precariously on the Amber List of Birds of Conservation Concern.
Despite the decline of kestrels both in the UK and Europe, the reduction in numbers is not thought to be serious enough for kestrels to approach the threshold of ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List. The justification for this is that the fall in numbers has been less than 25% throughout three generations (16.5 years) and that they have an extensive range across the world. Therefore, they are not considered as a species of concern. We could argue that this is a good thing, after all, nobody wants a species to be classed as ‘vulnerable’ or in immediate danger of extinction, however, their population trends of late are concerning. So far, we have not been able to identify a reason as to why our kestrels are disappearing, however, this does not mean that we are devoid of any ideas. Some suggestions for their decline have been put forward and these include: habitat change, lack of prey, climate change and extensive use of rat poisons. Although such suggestions have not yet been properly investigated, research is underway, with the hope of determining the possible cause or causes of kestrel declines.
Hopefully, we will soon discover the reasons for the decline in our kestrels as only then will we be able to take action to stop it. Until then, if you see a kestrel hovering over a field or flying overhead, take a moment to appreciate this small bird of prey and the constant struggles that face our ‘little bell ringers.’
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