The nankeen kestrel is a delightfully fluffy killer


Bec Crew


Bec Crew

Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
By Bec Crew 16 May 2019
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If ever the phrase, ‘kill them with cuteness’ applied, it’d be to the nankeen kestrel – a compact assassin with the sweetest face and a signature style that makes killing look easy.

Native to Australia and New Guinea, the nankeen kestrel is one of our most frequently sighted birds. You can spot them all across the country, including in Sydney, Melbourne, and occasionally in Tasmania.

Also known as the Australian kestrel, the nankeen kestrel (Falco cenchroides) grows to about the size of a pigeon, making it one of the world’s smallest kestrels. It’s also one of just two types of raptor in the country to hunt using suspension – not speed.

While hummingbirds are known for their ability to hover, beating their wings an incredible 80 times per second, larger animals find suspending themselves in the air far more difficult. For birds of prey, which must spend a considerable amount of time aloft scouting for rodents, insects, and reptiles, the easiest solution is to glide around in circles before dive-bombing their target.

Not so for kestrels – the only birds of prey capable of hovering.

Instead of beating their wings at hyperspeed like hummingbirds, kestrels face into the wind, and use its power to hold them in place as they scout.

The key to their hovering success is feathers that have evolved to be much stiffer than the feathers of other falcons, so are better able to withstand bending in the wind. Their wings also have specialised slots between the feathers, which let the air through to reduce turbulence.

They are so good at this ‘wind-hovering’ technique, they can keep their heads perfectly still in mid-air, and it’s an absolutely beautiful thing to see:

And as much as we love that fluffy little guy at the top of the page, we’d be remiss if we didn’t show you how majestic these tiny angels of death can be.

Here’s one looking gorgeous in the grass:

Image credit: Chris Fithall

And here’s one chilling with its handler:

Image credit: Chris Fithall

Of course, now we’re going to ruin that quiet dignity by showing you this slow-motion footage of a nankeen kestrel hunting, which is unintentionally hilarious because they’ve slowed its sweet little cries into some seriously goofy howls:

If you want to see more tiny assassins, check out these impossibly cute falconets.