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It is a small bird of prey, 27–33 cm (11–13 in) in length with a 63–72 cm (25–28 in) 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 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.