American Kestrel numbers have been dropping for 50 years. Scientists are racing to learn why and to turn around the fortunes of our most colorful falcon.
By Ronald Zigler | Published: 9/11/2017
Here’s the opening of our October 2017 cover story on American Kestrels and the scientists who are working to increase their numbers. You can read the full article in our print or digital editions. The issue will be on newsstands through late October.
During the four years that we lived in central Iowa, my wife and I often commuted along the two-lane highways between Des Moines, where I worked, and Jasper County, where we lived. Among the most familiar sights that we witnessed during those drives was the distinctive flight of American Kestrels hovering and hunting over the farmland. Because of the frequent sightings, I’ll always remember the vibrant coloration, bold patterning, and small stature that contribute to the kestrel’s charisma.
My interest in kestrels was further piqued when I had the chance to observe several juveniles up close at a wildlife rehabilitator in Iowa. In spite of their small size, those youngsters had the fierce look that seems to characterize all birds of prey.
However, when we left Iowa for the suburbs of Philadelphia, our kestrel sightings were no longer so common. Nevertheless, I eventually learned that a few nested regularly at the Gwynedd Wildlife Preserve, not far from my home. The preserve is managed by the region’s oldest and largest conservation organization, the Natural Lands Trust, whose mission is to protect forests, fields, wetlands, and streams in eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. The Gwynedd Wildlife Preserve is a 279-acre oasis of meadows, woodlands, and wetlands nestled among the highly developed suburbs of Blue Bell and North Wales, Pennsylvania. Managers of the preserve have created and, more importantly, maintained through controlled burnings, an ecosystem ideal for kestrels: open, short-grass habitat with cavities for nesting. Tom Kershner, the manager of the preserve, has observed kestrels every year since he arrived 17 years ago.
I frequently visited the preserve to photograph and observe kestrels. My growing admiration and curiosity for the birds inspired me to look beyond the camera lens and dig into research about the species. I quickly learned that since 1966, the kestrel population has dropped by nearly 50 percent across North America. The decline has been most dramatic in New England and the mid-Atlantic region, where the species is down 88 percent.
In 2012, The Peregrine Fund launched the American Kestrel Partnership, a program that seeks to uncover the cause of the decline and implement appropriate conservation measures. The program is comprised of a network of citizen and professional scientists who install kestrel nest boxes, monitor them through the breeding season, and report their findings on the partnership website. Staff scientists manage the information in a database that covers the bird’s expansive range (from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego) and can be safeguarded in perpetuity. To that end, the partnership provides educational tools to encourage careful and consistent monitoring, data collection, and data submission.
Ronald Zigler is an associate professor of educational psychology at Penn State Abington and an amateur wildlife and bird photographer. He also wrote about Otto Armleder Memorial Park in Cincinnati, Hotspot Near You No. 251.
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