The American kestrel: A falcon in peril

13
7367
Looking down into a bucket of chicks being lowered for banding
This bucket of kestrel chicks was being lowered for banding. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Northeast Ohio is home to many different birds of prey. Yet, the species that earns the award for the most vibrant colors, diminutive size and spirited personality is the American kestrel.

Recognized by its slender, pointy wings, long tail and swift flight, the kestrel is not a hawk, but rather, a falcon. Standing a mere 9 inches tall, with a wingspan of 22 inches, the kestrel’s signature behavior is to hover in one spot or perch high on wires and treetops while its tail bobs up and down as it searches for prey below.

Its diet is varied, and although it feeds on small birds, earning it the name “sparrow hawk”, it also regularly feasts on rodents, snakes, frogs and insects, using its sharp talons and hooked beak to aid in their capture and consumption.

A male kestrel, with his brilliant orange tail and slate blue wings, is a sight to behold, while the female, although slightly larger, is not as colorful, sporting brown wings, back and tail with black barring. Unlike other birds of prey, many of which construct their own nests, kestrels are secondary nesters, seeking out existing cavities rather than constructing their own. Old woodpecker holes, hollow trees, crevices in barns or building soffits may all qualify for suitable kestrel nest sites. Yet, one of their favorite places to nest is in a manmade nest box.

Male kestrel with meadow vole
This male kestrel just snagged lunch, unfortunately, for the meadow vole. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Decline

American kestrels are North America’s most widespread falcons. They are a bird of open country, preferring grasslands over forest. Yet throughout the past 50 years, their numbers have alarmingly declined more than 50%. Scientists believe that a combination of factors has played a part in this disappearance, including loss of habitat, competition for nest sites, climate change, car collisions, predation by other birds of prey and chemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides, that accumulate in their systems.

As my 31-year career with the Geauga Park District was drawing to a close, I decided to undertake one final endeavor, and in 2018 I launched my Kestrel Nest Box Project. This was to be a community effort, designed to act as a partnership between the park and local landowners to provide nest boxes to be placed in suitable kestrel habitat.

A kestrel chick prepared to fledge
A kestrel chick prepared to fledge. (Tami Gingrich photo)

With lumber money in my budget for 25 boxes, I enlisted a local Amish craftsman for their construction. Then came the task of making my pitch to the people whose properties showed the greatest promise of hosting kestrel pairs. Door to door I went, with a box in one hand and plenty of kestrel information in the other. I felt like a traveling salesman. I was pleased with the positive interest and, in the end, was able to distribute all 25 boxes.

Instantly, landowners were converted to landlords as we discussed the proper location as well as height and hole direction for each box. Also required, was their diligence in keeping the boxes free of unwanted tenants (mainly starlings and squirrels) so that they would be empty when the kestrels came calling. Landowners also committed to cleaning out the boxes after the kestrels had nested.

I agreed to monitor the boxes once a week, starting in March through the end of nesting season, to record their status. As a licensed bird bander, I sweetened the deal by offering landowners an up-close look at the nestlings and utilizing their assistance when it was time to band them.

One-day-old kestrel chicks snuggle together in their nest box. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Results

The boxes went up at the end of 2018, and we waited with great anticipation for the following spring. Although there were kestrels in the area, it was unknown whether or not they would abandon their traditional nest sites in place of a manmade box. There are pockets of kestrel habitat throughout Geauga County, but it is the southeast quadrant that holds the largest expanses of rural land, much of it lying within the Amish community. It is in this very area where our boxes prevailed.

In 2019, four of the boxes hosted kestrel pairs. Although not all of the same boxes were utilized, this same trend of four nesting pairs continued in 2020 and 2021. In 2022, the number of nesting kestrel pairs jumped to seven. Last year, my record was surpassed, and 10 pairs of kestrels found the boxes to their liking. It is interesting to note that in many other parts of the country where nest box programs are in place, the kestrel population continues to decline. Yet, here in northeast Ohio it is obvious that the population of this species is beginning to climb as kestrel sightings increase. To date, I have banded over 125 chicks.

These kestrel chicks are pictured on banding day
These kestrel chicks are pictured on banding day. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Hosting a kestrel nest box is a waiting game. It takes perseverance and patience. Yet for those who have succeeded in their landlord responsibilities, the reward has been great. Kestrels lay their eggs in March and April with an average clutch of 5. After an incubation of 28-31 days, the chicks hatch. At the age of 15-17 days, the chicks are lowered from the nest, allowing me to place an aluminum USFWS leg band on one leg of each chick and a color band with large letter/number codes on the other before being returned to the box. Young kestrels officially leave the box (an act called “fledging”) at around 30 days of age.

Landowners tell me that having a front-row seat to a falcon show has been the opportunity of a lifetime. Watching these beautiful birds of prey rear their young while instructing them how to hunt and survive has given them a new depth of appreciation for kestrels, especially when it comes to rodent control.

Furthermore, having an up-close look and a chance to handle the nestlings during banding has resulted in an unforgettable experience. I am beginning to feel a sense of pride and ownership developing in the community. Word is spreading. Interest in the project is growing. After all, it’s not often you have an opportunity to play a firsthand role in the recovery of a species in peril!

Tami Gingrich is pictured with a kestrel chick she banded
Tami Gingrich is pictured with a kestrel chick she banded. (Submitted photo)

•••

Note: If you live nearby in northeast Ohio, have the proper habitat, and know of a kestrel pair nearby, feel free to contact me for the possibility of having a nest box installed, receiving box plans or consultation for box placement.

This female kestrel is incubating her eggs
This female kestrel is incubating her eggs. (Tami Gingrich photo)

STAY INFORMED. SIGN UP!

Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!

13 COMMENTS

  1. I have been a licensed falconer in Oklahoma since the age of 14 and now 63 . Love the story because I had done the same thing putting up nest boxes for these amazing little rascals not only did they show up I had a chance to train and fly several in my days of flying birds which led to helping bring back the peregrine in the days when they started the hack box program in many states and now they have flourished from the help from other falconers and breeders and bird handlers with their banding these magnificent speedsters. Now the peregrine is back for the legal trapping during a small window of opportunity during their migration to the south padre only to find the parents back at the same nest site the following spring to make more young one of the best programs that was ever started by Cornell university and peregrine fund .

  2. Amazing Story!
    I live in Northwest Florida and just recently found one of these beautiful birds inside our aircraft hangar at my job. It flew off eventually but were still talking about the surprise visit.

  3. Obviously, your boxes proved very well. size and dimensions. could you put out the plans? To have to build our own correct and proven boxes. The requirements you require to be so successful you for all your work.

  4. I live in Wisconsin for the last two years a pair of Kestrels have nested on our building. Amazing little birds. I love to see them.

  5. Great story. I also live in the area and love photographing these masters of the sky. If ya ever need any volunteers to help let me know

  6. i’ve been a serious birder all of my life since early scouting days, a bird watchers merit badge being one of my proudest achievements as a boy.
    In the fall of 1976 I birded cape may nj, famous for its hawk migration, this particular day the winds were such that birds of all species were backed up at the point.

    as I waked along the south road beyond the nunnery, I observed sparrow hawks by the hundreds attemping to cross delaware bay into a stiff wind coming onshore,
    they were everywhere.

    zooming at high speeds and protected by the towering sand dunes they, at the last moment flew above the dune line attempting their crossing simply to be blown back to their starting point
    at incredible speeds.

    I situated myself in a quiet hideaway on the backside of the dune and spent what I remember as infinitude in wonder, as this lovely remembrance unfolded around me.

    • I live on the Point and have a box up for them to no avail! Maybe to far south. Fall numbers have fallen, but Merlins seem to be holding.
      My friend in downtown Canton, NY has Merlins nesting in a tree over railroad tracks. Seems they have adapted to the abundance of English sparrows etc.

  7. I will place 2 nesting boxes for kestrels. We have kestrels and goshawk visiting our garden. Unfortunately for us these birds of prey decimated the bantams chicks in our garden from 25 to 9.

    We let these birds of prey alone

LEAVE A REPLY

We are glad you have chosen to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment policy.

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.