Blue Ridge Naturalist: A Nest Box for the American Kestrel

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A kestrel nest box in suitable habitat might help the American Kestrel (seen here in a Christmas card painting by David White) from further population declines. Photo: David White.

David White, a former neighbor of mine, sends a Christmas card each year that is a gift in itself. The homemade card contains original artwork on the cover and an original poem inside.

Last year, his poem about the American Kestrel (a falcon that in former years was often referred to as a Sparrow Hawk) really touched my heart. As someone who cares deeply about our natural world, I was delighted to read David’s beautifully worded and informative paean to this bird of prey.

The inspiration for this poem was also of great interest to me. David is involved with a program to encourage folks to put up kestrel nesting boxes. The American Kestrel is said to have declined by 66 percent between 1966 and 2014.

One problem for this little falcon—just as it was for bluebirds—is the loss of dead trees in which to nest. When folks “clean up” their landscape, snags are one of the first things to go.

Because Eastern Bluebirds benefitted greatly by the erection of boxes just the right size for them to nest in, many organizations are now working to get folks to put up kestrel boxes. David is a volunteer with one of those groups.

Of course, as is the case for many organisms these days, the kestrel is also undoubtedly suffering population declines due to loss of food, the result of the loss of habitat for prey species. Nowadays most large acreages, whether they comprise farms or simply land surrounding homes, are kept cut most of the growing season.

In addition, they contain no hedgerows or brush and few trees and shrubs, all of which are necessary for the insects, spiders, mice, lizards, and other animals that feed kestrels. If the smaller animals have no place to live and reproduce, then the bigger animals that feed upon them, such as kestrels, cannot possibly survive even if they do have a suitable nest box.

I am deeply saddened by the huge amount of land in Virginia that people maintain in a condition unable to support wildlife, even though they are not really making use of it either.  It is a terrible waste of a natural resource.

Land is supposed to be productive, utilized by plants that can provide food, shelter, and nesting sites for animals. Or, if you prefer, the land around homes could provide food for people, which would make it productive and useful. But the lawns that we’ve been taught to surround our homes with, if unused as a place for entertaining or playing, are simply a waste of precious land.

Another factor in the decline of the American Kestrel is pesticide usage that kills the animals the kestrel depends upon for food. Direct poisoning could also be a factor.

Some years ago, a property near where I live supported an American Kestrel.  Although the plant growth around the house was kept short by haying, the plants along the roadway would sometimes manage to get fairly tall before the highway department would come along and cut them down.

In what most people would consider an “overgrown” area, the kestrel and I saw a life-supporting environment along the highway right-of-way.

Sometimes when I drove by on my way home from a trip to town, I would spot the kestrel perched on a wire near the un-mown roadway edge where it was watching for prey. Or if I was lucky, it would be hovering high in the air over that mass of plants, waiting for just the right moment to zoom down to catch some hapless critter within them.

One day I was dismayed to come by after someone had pesticided the area! The sprayed plants were turning brown and dying, losing their ability to feed the critters that fed the kestrel.

Additionally, because herbicides are poisons, the small animals (which are not particularly noticeable to humans) among the plants would be directly harmed. It is unfortunate but true that many people do not realize that herbicides sold for killing unwanted plants are lethal to many kinds of animals as well.

Although I saw the little raptor hovering that day over the pesticided plants and watched it dive into them, I never did witness that scene again at that property.

If you own land that could support an American Kestrel family, I do hope you will consider putting up a kestrel box. You can find many sites online that sell kestrel boxes or you can call around to local shops that sell bird supplies to see if they have them.

You can even build your own box.  Many books are available that give the specifications and directions, or you can find this information online as well.  Building a box is a great wintertime activity, which is why I decided to write about kestrel boxes now.

To entice you even more, here is David White’s poem (with his permission) from last year’s Christmas card.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

THE SPARROW HAWK

It lives in a hole, eats bugs, snakes and voles, and flies on scimitar wing

It hovers in space, the breeze in its face; its cry makes the countryside ring

A dove or a falcon? We’re sometimes confused for their size is somewhat the same

But different are they, like night from the day, and Kestrel is its true name

It graces our fields, our meadows and vales, but its numbers diminish each year

For its home in that hole in a tree, you see, has vanished to make the land clear

In His infinite wisdom, looking down from above He suggests that man intervene

To build a new house for tiercel and spouse as they dine on vole fricassee

A Sparrow Hawk once, a Kestrel today; whatever the name we apply

Our world is enhanced by their grace and their beauty as they ply their way ‘cross our sky

As they look downward in seeking their meal, it’s only fair that we lend a hand

To brighten their world, for it is ours, too; our mission: to freshen the land

So light be our touch; for surely this much we can do to declare our net worth:

To respect every creature, to heed our good Teacher, and forget not our Mother: Earth.

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