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Falcon Nest Appears on Penn State Campus

by on September 03, 2019 6:00 AM

By Steve Eisenhauer

American Kestrels are North America’s smallest falcon — about the size of a robin and often overlooked while perched on a utility line, a preferred hunting location. They feed on small rodents, big insects and occasionally, small birds. They nest in cavities, often in natural tree holes, but seem to prefer properly-constructed and mounted manmade nest boxes.

For the past two years, Kestrel Nest Box Program volunteers from Shaver's Creek Environmental Center tried to attract them to nest boxes mounted high on poles on the horse pastureland near Penn State’s Beaver Stadium. No luck there yet, but this year the volunteers installed a nest box at the Porter Road Swine Center in the pregnant sow pastures, and a kestrel pair moved in. Four female kestrel young resulted and, with the help of Swine Center Director Mark Kreidler, aluminum identification bands were placed on their legs on Aug. 2. They may now be hunting for food around the numerous grassy pastures on the campus’s northwest corner, or may have already headed south.

PSU’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center initiated an American Kestrel Nest Box Program three years ago to try to help reverse this species’ decline seen over most of the country. In 2018, 12 nest boxes were successful, and 48 kestrel nestlings were banded.

This year, 32 nest boxes were successful, with 138 reaching banding age of two weeks. The program’s study area covers Centre, Mifflin and the north half of Huntingdon County. Most boxes are mounted on steel poles that telescope up 15 feet, usually located along a fence line. Centre County had the most successful kestrel boxes with 14. Mifflin and northern Huntingdon County each had nine.

Swine Center Manager, Mark Kreidler, holding an 18-day-old female Kestrel chick. Submitted photo

Although kestrels nest almost exclusively in rural areas with grassland, grazing land and hayfields, one population has nested in New York City for more than 100 years. It’s difficult to accurately count this population; estimates range from 50 to 80 pairs. Eating mostly house sparrows, and nesting in rusted building cornices, these urban kestrels look identical to rural kestrels. There is only a handful of other – less-extensive – confirmed reports of nesting urban and suburban kestrels in other parts of the country, and in Canada.

Reports are rare of kestrels nesting on college campuses. Stanford University recently reported kestrels nested in an old chemistry building, entering through a broken window. And in the early 1980s, kestrels nested on the Purdue University campus. But few college campuses have the acreage of grassland and grazing land found around Penn State’s campus and the adjacent hospital, even when volunteers consider football weekend parking seasonally utilizes much of this land. Although kestrels are territorial in the breeding season, they are also colonial. If the habitat is good, and food available, they tolerate and may even welcome neighbors. Come fall, they often seek out kestrel company, and are seen traveling in loose flocks.

So keep your eye out for kestrels in the fall season, when hundreds migrate through central Pennsylvania on their way south. They can be seen almost anywhere in migration, although some routes concentrate them. One fall day last year more than 5,000 kestrels migrated through Cape May, N.J., when the wind conditions made crossing Delaware Bay easiest. In the spring, the migration north is more diffuse. Starting in mid-March, start to look for campus kestrels. Volunteers are hoping the one successful Swine Center nest box will expand to two, three or four in 2020. The habitat is here. The food is here. The nest boxes are up. A kestrel pair successfully bred here this year, and most successful boxes are reused the following year.

Program volunteers are optimistic.

Steve Eisenhauer is a Kestrel Nest Box Program volunteer from Shaver’s Creek Enivronmental Center.

 

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