Hope for the American kestrel

A once common sight around Frederick County was the kestrel, or sparrow hawk, hovering above an open field or perched on utility lines searching for a meal. Spotting kestrels is becoming harder to do these days as their populations decline.

The American kestrel (Falco sparverius) is the smallest and most widespread of the falcons in North America; they are found throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada. The kestrel prefers open grasslands and desert, normally living and nesting in hollow trees near these open areas.

Credit: allaboutbirds.org - Howard Shapiro

Kestrels lay five to seven eggs in the spring; they hatch in about 30 days. The young mature quickly, usually leaving the nest in a month or so. Unlike other falcons and birds of prey, the kestrel does not use speed or brawn to capture prey. Instead, they use their natural hovering ability and good eyesight.

This small raptor, about the size of a mourning dove, has a very diverse diet of insects, lizards, mice, snakes and smaller birds. The kestrel has two spots on the back of its head that look much like eyes. These markings disorient larger hawks that could potentially prey upon them. Given the kestrel’s high population potential, generalized diet and widespread distribution, why are the populations declining over much of its range?

More research needed

Long-term population surveys have determined that the kestrel has been declining over much of its range since 1984 at an average rate of 3 percent annually. Maryland’s peak kestrel population was in 1989 and has steadily declined since.

There have been a number of theories for this decline, including West Nile virus (first detected in the U.S. in 1999) and the increase in the number of Cooper’s hawks, a main predator of the kestrel. The destruction of grassland habitats and the decline of suitable hollow trees for perching and nesting, and the increased use of pesticides may also be factors. Finally, the kestrel’s general inability to cope with increasing human populations also might be a factor, based on the fact that kestrel declines are highest in the more densely populated sections of the country.

A number of studies have focused on the effects of these various factors and, so far, no definitive cause has been identified. For example, Cooper’s hawks seem to have developed more successful methods of capturing kestrels, but the hawk does not inhabit much of Canada where population declines are also being noted.

In addition, kestrel populations began their decline in 1984, much sooner than the advent of West Nile virus in the U.S. Most researchers theorize that the decline is the result of a combination of factors, and more research is needed.

Many organizations are trying to preserve suitable grassland habitats and retain hollow, den trees and perches around the perimeter of these fields. In addition, kestrels readily utilize suitable nest boxes, so many programs focus on erecting nesting structures around meadows.

Hopefully, these conservation practices combined with increasing knowledge on the causes of decline will enable restoration of this beautiful bird to our landscapes.

Article by FCFCDB

Nature Notes for 12/4/2011