Delaware County’s Kestrels: 2018

American Kestrel - Photo Earl Harrison

Multiple teams worked in various ways to help our continent’s smallest falcon make the 2018 nesting season successful. In addition to the sparrow hawks fledging 62 young, the season included transferring an active nest with eggs to a new pole; five ornithologists from Ohio Wesleyan University banded kestrels for the first time; four kestrels from the Ohio Wildlife Center were returned to the wild; and, a kestrel box and its pole were moved from wooded accipiter habitat to a safer, more open location.

Dick Phillips and I began the 2018 season by checking all boxes on March 13. Seventeen of the project’s eighteen boxes hang from utility poles managed by the Consolidated Electric Cooperative, while one box hangs from its own pole in Gallant Woods Park, managed by Preservation Parks of Delaware County. Ten of the 18 boxes showed evidence of kestrel activity by having oval-shaped, shallow indentations in their box’s bedding. Wood shavings had to be added to seven other boxes after starlings had excavated the bedding with hopes of claiming the sites for themselves. The monitoring trip proved to be typical for a mid-March visit.

The second of twelve monitoring trips on April 5 found six kestrel nests with eggs. The first egg of the season was laid on March 18, and the latest fledgling flew from its nest around July 24 for an active season of 129 days. Fifteen of the project’s 18 boxes (83.3%) produced falcons.

Kestrels started 16 nests with eggs and 15 nests fledged young for a 93.8% success rate. Seventy-five eggs were laid, 64 (85.3%) hatched, and 62 (82.7%) fledged. Once hatched, 96.9% grew to fly from their nests.

European Starlings have always attempted to nest in our boxes and we evict their eggs when we monitor on a regular basis. Starlings do not lay first eggs after the first week in June. Fourteen clutches of starling eggs were evicted from three boxes in 2018, and we made a mistake on June 1 when we assumed that owners of two empty starling nests had given up trying to raise families. Our mistake was revealed on June 30 when we found four nestlings in each of the two nests. We do not terminate nestlings that sport feathers, so we can add eight starlings to our season’s total.

Starlings in Nest Box

At twelve days after hatching, four European Starling nestlings have ten or eleven more days in the nest before they fledge.

In the early days of the Ohio Wildlife Center, in two different cases where volunteers were raising orphan starlings, they discovered that starlings can talk like parrots. Hopefully, the two families raised in our kestrel boxes this year will not disrupt native species, and better yet, they could help feed our native hawks.

Every nesting season is unique and four notable events made 2018’s season one to remember. In late May, as I was traveling on Cackler Road on my way to Alum Creek Lake to check my Prothonotary Warbler nestjars, I noticed three utility poles with shattered tops. I also noticed that white X’s had been painted on their surfaces just above ground level. Lightning had struck the poles and one pole was home to Box-17 that held four kestrel eggs. The painted X’s meant that the poles were going to be replaced.

I intercepted a lineman’s crew to let them know that Box-17 held four kestrel eggs. On May 30, linemen from Consolidated Electric and an independent contractor installed a new pole and successfully transferred the active kestrel nest to its new post. On June 1, Dick Phillips and I added a sheet of aluminum flashing to prevent climbing raccoons and a parent kestrel flew from its clutch of four eggs. We banded four hawklets from Box-17 on July 7, and they fledged around July 24. This is the second time in two years that skilled linemen have replaced poles while protecting the welfare of our world’s small falcons.

On June 15, Dick and I joined Dustin Reichard and Beth Schultz, professors at Ohio Wesleyan and Kenyon College, respectively, and three Wesleyan students, Becca Porter, Joe Brush and Delanie Baker, for an expedition to band two falcon families. Students enjoyed climbing a ladder to retrieve nestlings to be fitted with aluminum leg bands. Nestlings were returned to their nest as soon as possible as cell phone photos recorded the history of the event, including images of concerned parents circling the action. The young kestrels did a good job of being ambassadors to a group that had been studying much smaller birds like House Wrens during the spring and summer months. It was a good time.

On July 24, Preservation Parks technicians Lauren Richards and Stephen Perrine saw a bird run across the park’s road near the entrance to Gallant Woods Park. They stopped their vehicle and looked down on a kestrel as it looked up at them. A drooping wing explained that the bird was injured and why it was unable to fly. They captured the bird and discovered that it had a lacerated wing, and it also wore a leg band that would later prove that it had fledged from Box-16 nearby.

Park employee Kelli Venable delivered the wounded falcon to the Ohio Wildlife Center’s hospital at 2661 Billingsley Road in Columbus where a veterinarian sewed the wound and volunteers cared for the bird as its wing healed. As healing progressed, the bird was transferred to 6131 Cook Road where flight cages allow wounded birds to build their strength, coordination, and hunting skills are honed before they are released. OWC Director of Wildlife Education, Stormy Gibson, took special interest in feeding and rehabilitating OWC’s kestrels.

Kestrels from OWC

Two of four kestrels from the OWC make a strong entrance into the wild to join two others.

The park’s Craig Flockerzie kept me informed on the kestrel’s progress and once the OWC announced that it was time for the bird’s release into the wild, a plan evolved. On August 24, Craig and Lauren arrived at Gallant Farm and announced that they had the healed kestrel, and they also were transporting three orphaned siblings in another cage, all to be released. That was good since kestrel siblings stick together once they fledge, and siblings from more than one family will sometimes merge together as they hone their hunting talents. Dick Phillips had arrived and the four of us watched as one kestrel found himself back home after his wing had been repaired after being torn, possibly by a larger hawk. Then, the second cage was opened to allow three sibling kestrels to launch their own long, first flights.

We were all impressed by the smooth, strong flights of all four birds. Up they went to fly toward a thick fence row beyond a hay field that was being harvested by the farm’s crew. We were happy about the hay harvest because it would expose rodents and other prey items for the rookie hunters flying overhead. All four falcons landed in the same area, three in the same large oak tree, and one landed in a second oak next to the one most preferred.

After all four birds were in the air, my mind filled with memories of my friend, the late Dr. Don Burton, founder of the Ohio Wildlife Center. I met Don in 1977 when he was the summer naturalist at Delaware State Park. Don had just earned a master’s degree in Wildlife Management at OSU, and had been accepted in their vet school. Back then, Don talked of his dream of becoming a veterinarian and helping wildlife. Don founded the WRRC, the Wildlife Rehabilitation and Research Cooperative in 1984 that became the OWC in 1990. Without Don’s OWC, there would have been no one to repair the kestrel’s wing, nor teams of volunteers to care for its healing. Without an OWC, the first flights into the wild by three orphans would not have been possible. Thankfully, Don Burton’s legacy lives on.

The last notable event took place on September 25 when Dick and I met with Craig and Kelli of Preservation Parks to relocate Box-16. The habitat surrounding the nestbox at Gallant Woods Park had grown into habitat better suited for Cooper’s Hawks and other hawk species that are likely to attack kestrels. Kelli did most of the digging until some of the concrete around the pole was proving to be too tough. A call was made for the park’s portable jack hammer wielded by Kyle Pace, the operations manager.

After Kyle and the jack-hammer fractured the concrete, the pole with its box, baffle, cable and winch were extracted together and carried to a truck bed. K-16 was delivered one-quarter mile north, across Buttermilk Hill Road to a fence line facing the railroad. Kelli used my auger to dig a four-feet-deep hole and once the pole was planted, concrete powder was tapped around the pole to make a tight fit. Utility wires above the box should make the location extremely attractive to kestrels since they love to hunt from wires. The box is easy to see from Gallant Farm’s barnyard and parking lots.

American Kestrels are always fun to work with, but 2018’s season was extra special after caring people stepped forward to share the adventures. Raptor on!