We obtained measures of genetic diversity in 10 kestrel species at a suite of 12 microsatellite loci. We estimated the relative effective size (Ne) of the species using a Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) approach, which jointly estimated the locus specific mutation rates as nuisance parameters. There was surprisingly high genetic diversity found in museum specimens of the Mauritius kestrel. Being an endemic species on a small island, it is known to have a long history of small population size. Conversely, kestrels with a continental distribution had Ne estimates that were only one order of magnitude larger and similar to each other, despite having current population sizes that were between one and three orders of magnitude larger than the Mauritius kestrel. We show how many of the theoretical results describing the effective size of a subdivided population can be captured in terms of three rates which describe the branching pattern of the gene genealogy, and that they are useful in estimating the time to migration-drift and mutation-drift equilibrium. We use this approach to argue that population subdivision has helped retain genetic diversity in the Mauritius kestrel, and that the continental species’ genetic diversity has yet to reach equilibrium after the range changes following the last ice age. We draw parallels with Hewitt’s observation that genetic variation seems to survive species’ range compression and is rather vulnerable to range expansion.