It is a small bird of prey, 27–33 cm in length with a 63–72 cm wingspan. It looks very much like the larger common kestrel but has proportionally shorter wings and tail. It shares a brown back and barred grey underparts with the larger species. The male has a grey head and tail like male common kestrels, but lacks the dark spotting on the back, the black malar stripe, and has grey patches in the wings.
The female and young birds are slightly paler than their relative, but are so similar that call and structure are better guides than plumage. The call is a diagnostic harsh chay-chay-chay, unlike the common kestrel's kee-kee-kee. Neither sex has dark talons as is usual in falcons; those of this species are a peculiar whitish-horn color. This, however, is only conspicuous when birds are seen at very close range, e.g. in captivity.
Despite its outward similarity, this species appears not to be closely related to the common kestrel. Its divergence is tentatively placed to around the Miocene-Pliocene boundary (Messinian to Zanclean, or about 7-3.5 mya). The morphological similarity with the common kestrel is most puzzling, but still it appears to betray the present species' actual relationships: the lack of a malar stripe seems ancestral for kestrels, and the grey wing colour unites the lesser kestrel with most other Falco species, but not the other true kestrels.
The lesser kestrel is, as the name implies, a smaller and more delicate bird than the common kestrel, and it is entirely sympatric in its breeding range with it; they compete to a limited extent. Thus, the possibility that there is some form of adaptive advantage to the similar coloration deserves study. Considering that the lesser kestrel would in fact have an advantage if some would-be predators confused it with the larger species and consequently avoided it, it might be a case of Müllerian mimicry.
It is widespread and plentiful on a global scale, and the IUCN have classed it as Least Concern. Apart from possible habitat destruction, it appears that indiscriminate use of pesticides has a strong effect on this species due to its insectivorous habits
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