By Hilary Corrigan

The Bulletin

If you go

What: Discussion on American kestrels

Where: The Environmental Center, 16 NW Kansas Ave., Bend

When: 6:30 p.m. today

Free and open to the public. For more information, visit www.ecaudubon.org.

American kestrels have lost habitat over the years in the Bend region, but they’ve also gotten some help in the form of nesting boxes — possibly the next best thing to the trees and cliffs they prefer.

Besides housing kestrels, the volunteer effort aims to bolster and monitor the bird’s population that has declined nationwide. Volunteer Don McCartney, of Bend, who helped start the local effort 17 years ago, pointed to a 44 percent drop in the nationwide kestrel population from 1965 through 2010.

“The numbers are dropping, and they don’t know why,” McCartney said of researchers, noting population drops through much of Oregon but not in the local region — an apparent stronghold for the bird. “It seems we have an oasis for kestrels in Central Oregon.”

McCartney likes to think the nest boxes have helped.

He and a crew of about a dozen volunteers have now built and placed 111 nest boxes throughout Central Oregon, mostly in Deschutes County. He estimates the local boxes have helped fledge 2,850 birds over the past 17 years.

Kestrels are cavity nesters, using holes in dead trees or in banks, cliffs and buildings. They are the smallest, most common falcons in North America, according to the U.S. Forest Service. They live in open and semi-open country through the continent, abundant in the plains of the Rocky Mountain region and nesting at elevations as high as 8,000 feet in Douglas firs, ponderosa pines and pinyon-juniper forests. They eat insects, small mammals and occasionally birds, hunting from perches above fields and pastures.

The bird lives all through North America, Central America and much of South America, according to Cornell University’s Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They range in size from 8 inches to more than a foot long, with wingspans of 20 to 24 inches, and weigh about 3 to 6 ounces. Kestrels tend to head south to Central America for winter, although they can remain in one spot year-round.

Researchers have data on the bird’s northern breeding area, including Central Oregon. But they lack detailed information for the other half of the year, McCartney noted. His effort is part of the American Kestrel Partnership, a coalition of such research under the nonprofit Peregrine Fund in Boise, Idaho.

Local volunteers monitor the area’s nesting boxes in the spring and summer, collecting data on the number and locations occupied, the number of eggs and the number that hatch. Licensed banders also band the baby birds to track more data on them, including their migration patterns. That’s when the volunteers also snag feather samples from the birds for DNA analysis through UCLA to gather more information on migration, winter locations and possible reasons for the population decline.

McCartney especially likes working with the kestrel because it’s a cavity nester, easier “to get up close and personal and handle them” compared with golden eagles that nest high up toward the tops of trees.

An Audubon Society article from the spring wondered whether kestrels are the new poster species for the impacts of pesticides, noting that raptor populations — except kestrels — have rebounded since the ban of DDT in the 1970s. The society points to kestrels’ food source of insects, noting that insecticides wipe the bugs out.

Prineville-area resident Diana Roberts, a volunteer with Bend-based East Cascades Audubon Society, got involved with kestrel nest boxes from her interest in bird conservation, seeing the work as a chance to help kestrels find places to nest. She points to habitat destruction as the main threat they face.

Roberts suspects the local efforts have helped the population grow in Central Oregon.

“There is this small group of really dedicated people,” she added, who are “really making the difference for these birds that are on the decline.”

She also just enjoys watching kestrels return in the spring, seeing whether they use a nest box she set up, checking for eggs.

“They’re colorful and they’re small and they’re fun to watch,” Roberts said. “And when they hatch out, they are so cute.”

East Cascades Audubon Society will host an event tonight about kestrels so people can learn about the bird. Those interested may also want to get involved as bird hosts. McCartney’s group is always watching for new sites to place nest boxes, to replace habitat lost to development and other changes. Those who think their property might make good habitat — with open areas, for instance — can contact McCartney at dcmccartney@earthlink.net .

“Any time that I can find new habitat, I follow through on that,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,

hcorrigan@bendbulletin.com

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