Prisoners Restoring Ohio’s Owls and Falcons

American Kestrel on Wire - Photo Earl Harrison

A unique kestrel adventure began on October 22, 2014 when I received an email from Donna Schwab, Assistant Wildlife Management Supervisor, ODNR, Division of Wildlife. Donna had presented me with contact information for Kathy Wolboldt, Case Manager at the London Correctional Instition (LoCI), who was in the early stages of developing the PROOF program. Kathy was looking for potential projects to give male inmates community service time toward their release, and was initially interested in attracting Peregrine Falcons to the prison building, built in 1924. The building’s window sills and cornices were saturated with droppings from resident pigeons that were sustained by salvaging grains left by farming operations that included more than 300 head of dairy cattle and 3,000 acres of farmland. After the prison building was judged not high enough to attract peregrines, Donna thought I could help Kathy attract nesting kestrels, and possibly other cavity nesters.

As communications started, another key group came into focus. I serve on a science advisory committee at the Tolles Career and Technology Center, a vocational high school south of Plain City, also in Madison County. Twice, I had presented programs to Mr. John Thomas’s Environmental Science classes promoting bluebird and Tree Swallow conservation, and I helped with the early stages of placing nestboxes throughout their campus along Route 42. From the beginning, I kept John informed on the progress at LoCI.

I arrived for my first visit at the prison on January 20, 2015 to meet with Warden Terry Tibbals and his staff and to tour the grounds. By the time I parked my car, I was convinced that all the habitats that I had seen were kestrel habitats: open grass lands with lots of utility wires; ditches with water; mowed grass; pastures; and, meadows with mature, sparse oak trees. Even the prison’s tall, anti-climber fence looked kestrel-friendly. And, I had another strong thought as I left my car; the area also looked like prime Barn Owl habitat since I saw no dense forests that would support Great-horned Owls, known to include Barn Owls in their diet.

The meeting went well as I showed part of my kestrel presentation that I had on a flash drive. Pictures of box K-16 that stands at Gallant Woods Park in Delaware County helped to explain how a winch works to make monitoring easy by lowering and raising a kestrel nestbox on a free-standing pole. While the Warden’s staff supported kestrel management, they wanted to make sure that any system used would not lead to any type of security risk, such an outsider’s ability to hide contraband inside a baffle or nestbox for an inmate’s illegal use. The possible inclusion of Barn Owl conservation was also discussed since the property had numerous buildings that could support Barn Owl boxes.

After the meeting, I was given a tour of the prison yards where I could see the outside world through the heavy and tall security fences. I was fairly sure that we could install several kestrel boxes on opposite sides of the 600 yard-wide yard, and the boxes would still be visible from inside the prison fences. As the tour took place, we walked among hundreds of inmates dressed in blue. Nonviolent inmates that work outside the fence wear tan clothing and are called “tans” or “tanners.”

As the LoCI project bloomed, John Thomas introduced me to Mr. Jerry Newman, Construction Technologies Instructor at Tolles, which led to Jerry’s students building four kestrel boxes and three poles for LoCI. (I built the first of four poles as a sample to be followed.) Both junior and senior classes had outdoor construction projects to keep them busy, but the junior class was the most available, especially on rainy days that forced them inside. I delivered one pole, a sample nestbox, and building materials for other poles and nestboxes on February 9, 2015. Other trips with materials followed, including deliveries of six-inch drainpipe used for baffles, PVC boards used for nestbox sleeves that can slide up and down poles, cables and winches, fasteners, nestbox bedding, and printed plans for boxes and poles, etc. I made a total of six visitations to Tolles before everything was ready to go. I was very impressed by the effective skills of the competent, young carpenters.

I returned to the prison on March 23 to help select sites for the four poles that were nearing completion at Tolles. Several prison personnel and I rode in a pickup truck and used the truck’s odometer to make sure that the proposed box locations were at least one-half mile apart so nesting kestrels would not have territorial disputes with other kestrels. The only exception of the day was 600 yards (1/3 mile) between two box locations opposite each other on the east and west sides of the prison yard. Three box locations were lined up north to south along one mile of service road on the east side of the prison property.
A most important event started at noon on May 18, 2015 when the first kestrel nestbox was installed in the yard of LoCI’s historic warden’s house that has not been used as a home during modern times. It was also a ceremonial event, and with guards in attendance, the warden introduced members of his team and gave credit to Kathy Wolbolt for her vision of a project that was the first of its kind in all of North America.
Soon, five pairs of hands, including those from two inmates and three seniors from the second carpentry class at Tolles, lifted the kestrel pole Iwo Jima style as it slipped into its four-foot-deep cavity in the ground. Jane Beathard, Madison Press journalist, captured the action with her camera. Sacked concrete was quickly tapped around the pole as a level ensured its accurate stance. The winch was cranked to quickly raise the box to nearly 12 feet above the ground, then the drainpipe baffle was secured with its bolt, and the event’s participants and onlookers relived their roles through conversation. It was a great event.

Adjusting Nestbox Pole at the London Correctional Institute - Photo Dick Tuttle

Three carpentry students and two inmates make final adjustments to the powdered concrete around the pole’s base on May 18, 2015.

Three carpentry students and two inmates make final adjustments to the powdered concrete around the pole’s base on May 18, 2015.

Ken Duren, Barn Owl biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife, attended the ceremony and was given a guided tour of the grounds afterward. During Ken’s tour, three locations were identified as possible sites for owl boxes.

Tanners installed all the three remaining poles during the days that followed. Mid-May was a little late to attract nesting kestrels for 2015 since the population was well into its nesting season at other locations. Only starlings claimed the boxes during the 2015 summer, but tanner inmates gained experience and work credit for their supervised monitoring visits.
In the July 17, 2015 issue of Ohio Outdoor News, page 10, Jane Beathard’s article, “At prison, conservation meets incarceration” appeared. Subscribers, including hunters, fishermen, and bird watchers from throughout Ohio were made aware of the kestrel project at LoCI.

On August 31, I accomplished volunteer training and was given a badge to wear during my visits. I returned in November to do minor adjustments to the kestrel poles, including adding lengths of cable to three poles, and adding three inches to bumper stops at the tops of poles to prevent cable hardware from tangling with the poles’ pulley mechanisms. I was also scheduled to meet with an inmate bird expert in the office of their work barn. I was pleased to see the Ohio Outdoor News article displayed on the wall under a sheet of protective plastic. We discussed Barn Owls and I was encouraged to learn that Barn Owls had been seen on the prison property. I concluded that the bird projects had generated a lot of interest among the guards and inmates.
In March, I donated four books to the PROOF project: A Photographic Timeline of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s American Kestrel Nestlings; Project Puffin; The Audubon Birdhouse Book: Building, Placing, and Maintaining Great Homes for Great Birds; and a custom-built data book for monitors to record their observations. Hopefully, exposure to these books will lead to additional effective conservation projects.

An email from Kathy on May 21, 2016 announced that LoCI had a kestrel nest. Other emails followed until it was time to add U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leg bands to two families of four nestlings each on July 12. Sergeant Gordin drove a prison pickup truck with an extended cab to each of two boxes where Kathy, the Sergeant, one inmate and I hopped out to easily lower the box to extract some apprehensive young falcons. Of course, the kestrels were cute, beautiful, and full of personality. I applied the leg bands with my banding pliers as the other three participants gingerly held nestlings. After the nestlings were gently returned to their nest, we hooked the roof in place, easily raised the box and reattached the baffle, and off we went to the next box.

Kestrel at London Correctional Institute - Photo Dick Tuttle

A female kestrel huddled over her hatchlings and eggs as the monster-man in her ceiling took this photo.

As we encountered other guards, there were smiles and questions about the project, and when we banded a family near the tanners’ barn, the inmate on the banding team reached into the nestbox and lifted out a dead pigeon nestling that looked to be four or five days old. He held it up for a tanner work crew to see to prove that the kestrels were living up to their end of the deal; the kestrels had a place to nest, so they were helping with the pigeon problem. The small falcons had won over many members of the LoCI community.

In the September 23, 2016 issue of the Ohio Outdoor News, Jane Beathard’s second article “Kestrels find their way to prison, where PROOF nest boxes awaited” appeared on page 4 to tell the triumphant conservation story. The article reported that the kestrels perched on telephone poles and buildings throughout the prison farm until late August. In other words, once the nesting season was over, the resident kestrels continued to be a positive source of interest at the prison.

To sum things up, I frequently announce that as a conservationist, I do what I do for the birds, and when people also benefit, that is icing on the cake. The icing this time included teachers and young carpenters at Tolles, staff members at LoCI, and perhaps, most important, fellow human beings that are in the process of rehabilitation and re-entry into our society. If you are reading this, you know that your interactions with the natural world are therapeutic. You can’t help but smile when peering into a nest cavity to see eggs, hatchlings or nestlings of any of our native species.
Multiple teams of our own species worked hard to help American Kestrels nest at LoCI, then the small falcons went about enhancing many lives. Raptor on into 2017 and beyond!