The Suburban Falcon 5

Volunteers and biologists monitor American Kestrel nest boxes in Draper in effort to find the cause behind the species decline

On a quiet edge of Draper’s Wheadon Park, the mother-and-son team of Liz and Dylan Anderson observe an American Kestrel pair go about their parenting duties, flying in and out of a wooden nest box situated high on a pole.

“They’re my favorite bird. They’re so interesting,” says 13-year-old Dylan, who is a devoted fledgling fan of North America’s smallest falcon. While hunting, Kestrels hover like a helicopter, and are thought to have the ability to spot ultraviolet markers left by rodents’ urine trails. Dylan also likes their all-American colors of (rusty) red, white (around the eyes) and slate-blue (on the wings of the male).

These agile, unique and colorful falcons can be spotted by vigilant birdwatchers within the 64-acre park and in other Draper open spaces. The Andersons are volunteer citizen scientists with the American Kestrel Study, an effort by HawkWatch International to study and band these falcons. Thirty years of data recorded at migration sites throughout the West show their population in decline. Causes could include continued exposure to toxins, competition for nesting sites and habitat loss. The latter translates into limited tree and hollow cavities these falcons need for nesting. Luckily, Kestrels find the man-made boxes adequate for the job.

More than 300 nest boxes are located along the Wasatch Front, monitored weekly during springtime nesting season by volunteers. The Andersons monitor the six boxes situated throughout Draper.

With a high-definition camera synched to a smartphone and attached to a pole, Liz and Dylan peek into the box to look for eggs. On this May afternoon, they count five eggs watched over by the mother Kestrel. HawkWatch Research Biologist Jesse Watson joins them, equipped with a ladder, a clean Pringles can, and a tackle box filled with metal and colored bands.

“We follow strict protocols in our research to minimize disturbance and stress to the birds, but seeing as how it’s a warm day I am not too worried about keeping her off her eggs for a bit,” says Watson about the banding process, which takes five minutes.

While Dylan blocks the entrance hole with the camera, Watson opens a side panel and gently removes the mother bird. He places her head first in the Pringles can to keep her calm. Then he clasps a U.S. Fish and Wildlife aluminum band on her left leg and a colored band—for quick and easy identification—around her right. Her tail feathers and wing size are measured and she’s weighed in at 142 grams. Watson plucks a few breast feathers for DNA analysis and places her back on the eggs.

“Ideally, we’d also like to band the male,” he says, and adds that banding the nestlings when they are a little older is a goal, as well.

Since 2013, HawkWatch International biologists have banded 850 Kestrels in Utah. Last year, they banded 368 Kestrels.

The data collected will show how many boxes were active, how many produced young, the clutch size, and the number of nestlings that fledged. The information is used to compare urban Kestrel activity to wildland and agricultural activity. That data is incorporated into national efforts to find out why Kestrel populations are in decline, and eventually work toward conservation initiative to protect them.

Watson says they are always looking to expand the study and are interested in placing more nest boxes in Draper. And, as the study continues to grow, additional volunteers would help in its success.

“Without a doubt there are kestrels currently nesting in Draper that we don’t know about, and hopefully we can get a better grasp on their density throughout the course of our study,” he says. “Placing additional nest boxes in suitable habitat is one way that we can ensure Kestrels in the area have quality places to call home and will allow us to monitor the species status in the Draper area.”