Open Mice: Kestrels–An Iowa Legacy

At the mic: Coralee Bodeker is a fourteen-years-old and a native Iowan who’s been actively birding for about five years, most of those years with the Iowa Young Birders. Her earliest birding memories involve participating in Project FeederWatch with her mom as a preschooler and visiting her great-grandmother in Matagorda County, Texas where they would bird and collect shells on the beach together. Coralee has been writing about and drawing birds since she started homeschool in 2013.  A favorite birding memory of hers took place during a particularly dangerous cold snap in deep winter: she witnessed a male American Kestrel attack and kill a female Northern Cardinal literally feet away from the window of her house. This was also the first time she observed a kestrel up close. From that point on Coralee made it a point to find and observe these cool little raptors whenever she could.  

——–

A Prairie Girl’s Notebook, Issue 23
A few years ago, a short drive down my gravel road would yield at least one, if not two, American Kestrels perched on a power line or hovering mid-air above the grassy ditch. These vibrantly colored, miniature falcons peppered the roadsides, diving into ditches whenever a car passed. Today, Iowa still hosts a breeding and wintering population of American Kestrels, but I have begun to count myself lucky to drive past a mere one kestrel per week rather than the daily sightings. This same scarcity has been occurring across the state; anecdotally, many birders are noticing fewer and fewer American Kestrels in their local areas, while hard data from formal Hawkwatch sites illustrates a steady decline. Scientists and raptor counters at Hitchcock Nature Center in Pottawattamie County (Iowa’s only full-time Hawkwatch site) have recorded an overall downward trend in migrating American Kestrel populations for the past decade. In our neighboring state, the Illinois Beach State Park Hawkwatch has recorded similar data trends. To put this in perspective, despite a considerable rise in contributing datasets, Bird Studies Canada also reports a downward trend in American Kestrel numbers since the 1950s and a recent nosedive in the past decade. These numbers come from a database of over 7.6 million North American bird survey records, including Hawkwatch counts, annual Christmas Bird Counts, FeederWatch reports, eBird surveys, and Breeding Bird Surveys, to name a few. The decline in the American Kestrel population has been slowly looming, but it wasn’t until last fall that I truly noticed the scarcity in my own area. No breeding pairs nested near my neighbor’s prairie last summer for the first time in at least eight years.

Illustration by Coralee Bodeker


Possibly the biggest threat for American Kestrels is habitat loss. The once large expanses of pastures and prairies sufficient to sustain hunting American Kestrels have shrunk to roadside ditches as more and more land in Iowa is converted to farming. More importantly, however, kestrel nesting sites are also decreasing. American Kestrels normally nest in cavities in dead trees on the edges of open grassland, but these trees are being removed (for a variety of reasons) and local American Kestrels are scattering to the wind. This species has more recently tried moving into towns and out of the rural areas in an effort to overcome habitat loss, but in towns American Kestrels face the threat of larger birds of prey, including Cooper’s Hawk, which will eat a kestrel.
A further threat facing American Kestrels is a decline in flying insect populations, which kestrels depend on to feed their young. A few years ago, when Iowans filled their cars up with gas they routinely wiped down their windshields to clean off the copious amounts of smashed bugs, but today many Iowans are finding the need for a Casey’s squeegee quite unnecessary. I hadn’t given this conundrum much thought until rather recently when I obtained my learner’s permit to drive. This is a disturbing example of how an often-overlooked animal can disappear before our eyes.
With fewer kestrels around my home, I wonder what has happened to their daring aerial displays, their hunting chases and jaw-dropping turns and dives I’m so used to watching. What has happened to the American Kestrels that once lined the roads and swooped out over the fields as cars passed? Did these birds simply disappear over the horizon to some distant state? Will the same thing happen to the American Kestrel that has already happened to so many other North American raptors, suddenly plummeting off the population charts like the Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, and Osprey did so many years ago (albeit for other reasons)? Or will insightful, smart, compassionate people step in to save the American Kestrel before that last-hour collapse? My hope is we can help the American Kestrel in time. Iowa needs American Kestrels like we need the prairies and clean water. This is Iowa. This is our legacy.
‘A Prairie Girl’s Notebook’ is inspired by ‘A Naturalist’s Notebook’ penned by John Schmitt & found in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Living Bird magazine. 
References

  • Chi, Dora. “Tracking Kestrels One Feather at a Time.” Audubon. National Audubon Society, 18 Aug. 2016, www.audubon.org/news/tracking-kestrels-one-feather-time. 5 Jan. 2017.
  • Davis, Kate. American Kestrel: Pint-Sized Predator. Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2014.
  • HawkCount. Hawk Migration Association of North America, www.hawkcount.org. Accessed 5 Jan 2017.
  • NatureCounts. Bird Studies Canada, www.bsc-eoc.org/birdmon/default/main.jsp3. Accessed 5 Jan. 2017.
  • Toll, Jerry. Iowa Young Birders Trip to Hitchcock Hawk Watch/Hitchcock Nature Area, 24 Sept. 2016, Hitchcock Nature Center, IA. Address.
2017-05-16T11:29:05+00:00