A new initiative is encouraging landowners to think twice before cutting down dead trees in rural open pastures. The natural nesting cavities in these trees turn out to be especially well-suited for one area bird.
The nonprofit Virginia Society of Ornithology is promoting the American Kestrel Nest Box Project to create habitat for a bird population in decline due to modern pesticides and cleared trees.
The American kestrel, commonly known as the sparrow hawk, is a small North American falcon.
“These birds are declining in number,” said Dan Bieker, assistant professor of natural sciences at Piedmont Virginia Community College and a Virginia Society of Ornithology board member. “The limiting factor is the lack of natural nesting cavities.”
Bieker and Patti Reum, conservation chairwoman for the Virginia Society of Ornithology, launched the initiative last year and plan to host a community presentation Thursday at the Baldwin Center at Bundoran Farm in Albemarle County.
Bieker said the public can learn about the bird’s biology, life cycle and the box project.
“We will explain how we are seeking out landowners who want to host a box,” Bieker said. “We will put them up for no charge and we will encourage folks to monitor them.”
Natural Retreats, a Charlottesville-based company focused on nature conservation, is working with former Bundoran Farm owner Fred Scott to rescue and restore the kestrel population in Albemarle and the rest of Virginia.
“It fits right in with what we are passionate about,” said Josh Woodson, general manager of Natural Retreats.
The project is supported largely by a $15,000 donation from Scott’s Ballyshannon Fund and $5,000 from the Baldwin Center for Preservation trust at Bundoran Farm.
“There are four boxes at Bundoran, and the grants will help provide 150 boxes around the state,” said Scott.
The boxes measure about 2 feet tall by 1 foot wide, with a 3-inch entrance hole. They sit 15-20 feet high on a pole or tree in a suitable habitat, preferably where kestrels have been seen.
Scott said the project started at Bundoran about two months ago.
“Dan Bieker and I climbed up a tree, put up a box, and five days later, I saw a little bird with his head in the hole,” said Scott. “It was amazing.”
According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the kestrel population nationwide decreased 47 percent from 1966 to 2011.
The American kestrel is common in farmlands and needs open space. Primarily, they prey on insects like grasshoppers, but they also eat mice, voles, small reptiles and amphibians.
“They are also quite attractive,” said Bieker. “They eat rodents and insects so they are beneficial to the land while interesting to watch as well.”
Bieker has lived in Virginia for more than 30 years and initiated the Kestrel Nest Box Project after successes with several boxes, especially one on his farm used by kestrels for more than 15 years in a row.
“Over the last several decades, the rural landscape in general has become increasingly clean and manicured, with fewer dead trees left standing in pastures and woodlots,” Bieker said.
He said fencerows and roadside thickets are easily cleared with brush-killing herbicides, diminishing habitat diversity, especially for small mammals, and the prevalence of pesticides on agricultural fields has severely affected insect diversity and numbers.
“These are all factors in the decline of kestrels and many other species, especially birds and mammals dependent on grassland and mixed habitats,” Bieker said.