Tracking American Kestrels in Virginia

Feb 8, 2017

The American kestrel is North America’s smallest falcon, and across Virginia and other states, efforts are underway to study and save this raptor. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz accompanied one couple whose kestrel nesting boxes dot the countryside of northern Rockingham County.

[Sounds of trapping throughout]

JILL MORROW: Okay, all the traps are ready. Ooops, got myself caught.

As Lance Morrow pulls into the gravel driveway of a construction company warehouse along a country road through rolling hay and pastureland, his wife and licensed master bander Jill prepares small cages, a white mouse in each.

LANCE MORROW: Male kestrel.

JILL: Where is he?

They’re trapping American kestrels, colorful 4-ounce falcons that often perch on power lines watching for mice and other prey. The national population decline of these birds over the last 45 years is estimated at 47% -- in the Northeast that could be as high as 88% -- a suspected casualty of their grasslands habitat loss due to human development, agricultural practices, and, because these predators prefer open fields for hunting, abandoned farmland becoming forested.

JILL: He threw three traps.

LANCE: There he is.

Each cage Lance throws out the truck window is laced with fishing-line nooses that will snag the hungry falcons’ toes.

JILL: Let me verify he’s a male.

LANCE: See him right here on the wire about 40 yards away.

JILL: We’re just going to watch to see if he goes after the traps.

The two Morrows will band previously uncaught birds, or learn about the health and habits of the local population from one of the 1,200 they’ve already banded.

JILL: It's really warm today so they're going to be eating worms and might be a little difficult to trap.

The Morrows are retired independent contractors and conservationists who for the last two years have been working full time to analyze and publish papers from their decades of collecting wildlife data from here and elsewhere. They are also continuing to study kestrels in their Shenandoah Valley Raptor Study Area, 144 square miles surrounding Timberville.

LANCE: No, he’s flying away.

JILL: He says, 'No, I'm not interested.'

They started in 2008 with six kestrel nesting boxes; they now have 90. Aside from about 10 taken over by squirrels, the Morrows say their boxes have an occupancy rate of 85-95%.

LANCE: We’ll pick up.

JILL: So we’re going to try for one that’s more hungry.

The birds in the Morrows’ study overall don’t seem to be migrating -- or even moving out of the study area.

LANCE: That's part of the study that we weren't even expecting. It's like we have a self-contained population of kestrels and very little flow of genetics. After 1,200 birds banded, we're not having any reported being trapped or found dead north of us in Pennsylvania or south of us. All of our birds appear to be just right here.

JILL: And we've never caught anybody else's banded kestrel.

They think that climate change could be one factor that’s affecting the migratory habits of kestrels.

LANCE: In the olden days, I’m sure kestrels from up north flew here and found it a good place to winter. We don't have anybody's birds from the north coming here now.

Later in the morning, along another country road, the Morrows spot several more kestrels, and wait to see if any respond to the three traps they’ve just placed.

LANCE: I think that if he could go down and catch one of those mice and prove to his wife how good he is at providing provisions… He's gone.

JILL: I think he's on… OK, stop, let me look at the traps.

LANCE: See three?

JILL: Yeah, we got somebody. Let’s go.

Jill retrieves the female kestrel looped to a trap, and they examine and band the bird.

JILL: That’s all there is to it. Isn't she lovely? It will be very interesting to see if we catch her in that box right behind me come this breeding season.

And then it’s time to set the kestrel free…

LANCE (to his young helper):  When we tell you, you’re going to ‘one, two, three,’ and you’re just going to go like this….

… they let an accompanying youngster along for the morning release it...

LANCE:  Count out loud…

(HELPER):  One, two, three (sound of kestrel flapping and flying away…)

...and it flies up to perch on the power line over its roadside habitat between a heavily grazed pasture and corn field stubble.

LANCE: Was that cool or was that cool?