Trail of roadside nesting sites expected to help falcon’s numbers rise across Ohio
An American kestrel in flight
Ask bird-watchers about the American kestrel, and they’ll describe how this smallest of falcons perches on wires or atop poles, or hovers, facing the wind, flapping and adjusting its long tail to stay in one place.
And they’ll describe how this colorful raptor’s ferocity belies its size, as it preys on insects, small mammals, snakes and even songbirds.
They know these things because there are more kestrels than any other type of falcon in North America. They’ve seen thousands of them over the years.
Then again, they’ll likely tell you that it has been a while since they last saw a kestrel.
Nationwide, the kestrel population decreased by 47 percent from 1966 to 2011, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Across Ohio, the number of kestrels has decreased by 43 percent since 1991.
One reason, said Matt Giovanni, the director of the American Kestrel Partnership, is that that many of the old trees where the raptor nested in woodpecker holes are gone.
“When it comes down to it, first and foremost, if kestrels don’t have cavities, then they don’t breed,” Giovanni said.
That’s why the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative, the Ohio Ornithological Society, the Ohio Division of Wildlife and the state Department of Transportation have created a trail of nest boxes.
So far, 25 boxes have been placed on the backs of ODOT signs along Rts. 23 and 30 in Wyandot County, said Amanda Conover, program coordinator for the Bird Conservation Initiative.
“Hopefully, we are taking a big dead zone, kind of like a Bermuda Triangle, and putting in the right ingredients to grow kestrel numbers, and then their offspring will radiate out from there,” said Jim McCormac, an avian expert with the Division of Wildlife.
The boxes, put up in November and December, are at least a half mile apart and near open fields.
The Ohio project was funded by a $1,000 grant from the American Kestrel Partnership, which has helped put up more than 1,000 nest boxes in 26 states, Giovanni said.
“Nest boxes are pretty much, hands down, the most effective and successful conservation method for kestrels,” he said.
McCormac said many factors have contributed to the waning kestrel population. They include predation by bigger hawks, insecticides that reduce insect and small-mammal populations and, most devastating, loss of hunting and nesting habitats.
Ohio is a priority area because the Great Lakes ecosystem has seen one of the steepest declines, Giovanni said. He said nest box trails have helped boost the number of kestrels in other states and that he has high hopes for Ohio.
Ohio birders “are one of a select group that has totally taken the bull by the horns to make this happen at the local Ohio level but also help with research at the national and even continental scale,” Giovanni said.
One volunteer who led the effort is Charlie Zepp, who built more than half the boxes, which are 15 inches tall and 10 inches wide, for the Ohio trail.
Zepp also has built more than 5,000 bluebird boxes and frequently starts those trails around the Dublin area, where he lives. He said he remembers seeing many more kestrels when he was younger.
“With my bluebirds, that was a bird that was in huge trouble and you barely saw any of them, and now they are almost common,” said Zepp, an environmental specialist for the state fire marshal’s office. “Hopefully, that will happen with the kes trels.”
The kestrel breeding season begins in the next few weeks, and three students from the University of Findlay will monitor the boxes from the end of March through June.
They will track how many boxes are used and the number of eggs and eventually hatchlings. Conover said she would consider it a success if one-third of the boxes are used this first year.
“Hopefully in 50 years the bird population will be healthy and you won’t have to watch them anymore,” Zepp said. “That’s the goal, to not have to watch them anymore.”
Conover said there are plans to expand the Ohio trail next year.
McCormac said he is hopeful as well.
“Kestrels are very charismatic — they’re a bird we really want to keep around because they are such a great way to get people interested in nature and engaged in conservation,” he said.