American Kestrel - Photo Mick Thompson

Monitoring 18 kestrel nestboxes and banding all nestlings provides a good hobby for Dick Phillips and me and the 2020 nesting season did not disappoint. 

The small falcons did their part by attempting fifteen nests with eggs and thirteen (87.7%) families matured to fledge young. The sparrow hawks laid 71 eggs, 57 (80.3%) hatched, and 56 (78.9%) fledged. Once eggs hatched, 98.2% grew to fly out of their nestboxes to continue their quest to mature and raise future families of their own.

Usually, fledged siblings form a flock for several weeks as they are mentored by their father. Sometimes, during monitoring, we hear fledglings begging while hiding in crop fields. This practice protects them from larger raptors that find the fledglings easy to harvest.

This female kestrel is incubating five eggs that were counted on 26 April 2011, fifteen days before this photo was taken.
A female American Kestrel incubates her eggs.

Dick and I did our part by traveling a nearly fifty-mile road trip ten times to monitor the boxes during the kestrel nesting season, and we revisited the boxes on October 5 and 6 to clean nest chambers and add new white pine bedding. On October 5, we found Box-3 (K-3) missing, and a new pole had replaced the original mount. After several days of phone calls we were told that a crew from outside the area had traded poles and left Box-3 at the foot of the new pole. We used to have laminated notes attached to the bottom panels that had contact phone numbers. Most of these messages have aged to drop off. Apparently, a passerby snatched the unattended kestrel box and I hope they offer it to their neighborhood raptors. We mounted a new K-3 on the new pole five days after the disappearance.

The kestrel nesting season was short compared to a standard that I compiled from 155 nests years ago. The first egg of 2020 was laid in K-7 on March 29 which is 15 days later than the earliest egg laid on March 14. Only ten-percent of first eggs are laid before March 29.

Then, the latest fledging took place on July 1, making the 2020 season 95 days long. The standard season length set by 155 nests is 166 days long, from March 14 through August 26, so the 2020 season was 42.8% shorter than the standard. When I did the calculations for 2020, I ignored what happened in K-15.

American Kestrel on Wire - Photo Earl Harrison
An American Kestrel surveying for prey.

K-15 held a second clutch of three eggs on July 5. We always monitor all of the boxes sometime after our national holiday of July 4 so we won’t miss counting a second clutch of eggs. We checked K-15 again on July 23 and August 3 and the eggs had still not hatched. To be really safe, we did not remove the eggs until we were cleaning and adding new white pine bedding to all boxes in October. I cracked open the overdue eggs to find that the eggs had partially developed. Apparently, they had been abandoned during the early days of the incubation phase. The box is close enough to a woodland for a hungry accipiter that might have been a factor in the nest failure.

On October 31 an event took place that had many reasons; we  removed K-16, its metal baffle, its cable and hand winch, from its pole at the Gallant Farm Park along Buttermilk Hill Road. We returned on November 12 to use a modified car jack to pull the pole from the earth for an effective job of salvaging.

So, what were the reasons for removing K-16? First, production had been unstable, and in 2019, only three young fledged, and in 2020, no eggs were laid. Then, the gate was usually locked when we had time to monitor, usually because of concerns with managing safe visitations around the pandemic.

But the number one reason for removing K-16 was the growing Purple Martins’ colony at the farm. The Purple Martin Conservation Association has listed American Kestrels as a threat to Purple Martins. I don’t raise martins, but I belong to the PMCA and they know what they are talking about. So, we thought it best, before any incidents are recorded, that K-16 should be moved to make the farm safer for the martins.

A rehabilitated box was painted with the number 16 on its front panel and now stands at a good site with no martin hotels in the area. Kestrel conservation will continue with a total of 18 boxes making for a stable project that has fledged 1,288 young falcons since its first productive family in 1995.

A brave mother kestrel protects her young on May 20, 2019.

Two extremely positive events took place on June 7 and 17 when orphaned kestrels from the Ohio Wildlife Center were fostered. One orphan was added to a family of four nestlings, and the later one joined a second family of three nestlings. As far as fostering is concerned, I say that parent birds can’t count and they always accept the fostered youngsters as long as they are of the same age as the original family. Once the fostered birds were added, the project fledged 58 young falcons. 

The following event has been published in two newsletters, but I thought it deserved more exposure since it was so unique and memorable to its victim. On May 23, 2020, an event took place that really made me smile after everything ended without any detrimental outcomes; a female American Kestrel hit my head. Good news for both of us, she did not grab my head with her talons. I was wearing my Ohio State Parks and Watercraft volunteer’s cap, and instead of a solid fabric, two-thirds of the cap’s crown is a plastic mesh fabric that allows maximum ventilation to one’s head. Had the falcon grabbed it while trying to make me bleed, the webbed fabric might have tangled with her talons to cause flight problems.

American Kestrel in flight

The thump on my head felt like a sock full of sand and she hit on the left side of the back of my skull. I believe she made contact with one side of her breast bone’s keel that contains muscles connected to her wing. Ironically, I believe I caused the collision since I had just reached the kestrel box to unfasten its hook. As I raised the hinged lid, I leaned to the left to allow the lid to pass my face and the hawk was too close to avoid hitting me.

Was she hurt? No, she flew fifty or more yards east to land on the utility wire to prepare for more passes. After I counted a family of five nestlings, I gently picked one up, and descended the ladder to join a laughing Dick Phillips. I handed the youngster to Dick, and then I went about writing band numbers and other information in my banding book. Dick held the bird’s body to present its leg to the jaws of my banding plyers. After I closed the leg band around the falcon’s tarsus, Dick climbed the ladder to return the nestling to its nest, after which he selected the second bird to be banded.

As Dick approached the top of the ladder, the determined mother launched another attack, and as she was within ten yards of her target, I blasted her with a loud, forceful pish-h-h-h. Hearing the pish, she veered off course to pass Dick and circled for a second attempt. I pished again to deter her. This went on for each trip up the ladder to return one and select another nestling to be banded. The good news is, her added attacks told us that she had not been injured when she delivered her first protest to my head.

Much is being reported on the decline of the kestrel population during recent decades, but every kestrel nestbox project that I am aware of has successfully raised our continent’s smallest falcon. We need more conservation projects to answer the small falcon’s need. So, conserve on!