Jim Anderson leaned a ladder against the ponderosa snag and climbed to the nesting box overhead. Dust and debris tumbled out as, one by one, Anderson carefully removed five tiny birds of prey and handed them to volunteers. Nearly three weeks old, these American kestrel nestlings retained bits of down between their speckled feathers that would soon help them take flight.

Each spring and summer, Anderson is one of more than a dozen volunteers who take part in a Central Oregon kestrel survey in collaboration with the American Kestrel Partnership, a national project started by nonprofit The Peregrine Fund. The endeavor involves installing special nesting boxes for kestrels. The species is a cavity nester that builds its home in holes drilled and occupied by other birds, such as woodpeckers. But these holes are in short supply. Certified volunteers also “band” these kestrels, or affix tiny, numbered anklets that the birds will wear throughout their lives. From a band’s numeric code, researchers can tell who banded the bird, where it happened and when.

The American kestrel, which is the smallest — and most colorful — raptor in North America and migrates as far as South America, has declined by 50 percent since 1966, according to the Peregrine Fund. In Central Oregon, however, the population has remained stable, local volunteers said. This year, 64 of 147 (or 44 percent) local kestrel nesting boxes were occupied by kestrel families.

“The question is: Why here?” said volunteer Carol McCartney. Her husband, Don McCartney, leads the local effort with the help of Ken Hashagen. “What would be unique here that we have a stable population?”

As Anderson carried a kestrel down the ladder, he let out a yelp.

“He got me!” Anderson said. White bird poop streaked his forearm and T-shirt as he handed the nestling to a volunteer.

“We call that the ‘kestrel christening,’” said Dean Anderson, one of Jim’s six adult children.

Dean Anderson and his five children traveled from Fabius, New York, to visit Jim and help with the kestrel banding, of which he is in charge. It’s an annual tradition that, this year, coincided with Jim’s belated 90th birthday celebration.

“(Kestrel banding) is a family thing,” Dean said.

Jim Anderson, a spry man with bushy eyebrows, began banding birds in the 1960s. Since that time, American kestrel populations have waned in much of the country, according to the American Kestrel Partnership. While the phenomenon has not been rigorously studied, experts suggest that the decline has been caused by various factors. Those include land development, climate change, predation by other birds of prey, competition with other bird species for nesting cavities and pollutants, according to the organization. Ideal nesting spots have diminished as snags, or dead trees, have been removed for development or human safety. To help ensure kestrel survival, local volunteers have organized the installation and surveillance of 147 nesting boxes throughout Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties. They’re also responsible for 388 additional wooden nest boxes, which have benefited other cavity nesters such as bluebirds, chickadees and tree swallows.

Dick Tipton, a local woodworker and birder, tailors these boxes to particular species. Don McCartney provides the materials. Anderson and McCartney joined the American Kestrel Partnership in 2012, the year it was founded. They recruited the friends who had helped with independent nesting box projects. All of the original volunteers still show up, Anderson proudly noted. About 2,900 kestrels have fledged from nesting boxes the team has installed since 1997.

“But it’s just all work,” Jim Anderson said. “The volunteers are out there enjoying it. They’re wonderful. Boy, oh boy.”

Each volunteer is responsible for a separate route that includes eight to 27 nesting boxes. They first check on them around May 10, learning which boxes are active and how many eggs they hold. A month later, volunteers estimate the nestlings’ ages so the group will know when to come back to band them, which is around their 22nd day. They don’t band the birds before their 18th day because telling the sexes apart is too difficult until the males develop blueish feathers on their heads and wings. Volunteers pluck four breast feathers, which provide biologists important DNA information, and check under the kestrels’ wings for mite-like parasites.

Standing near a nesting box on land north of Bend, which is managed by Bend Park & Recreation District, volunteer Nancy Esperancilla gushed about these small birds of prey that grow 9 to 11 inches from head to tail.

“It’s addicting to work with kestrels,” she said. Her husband, Satch Esperancilla, banded birds nearby. He used a special plier-like device to attach small bands to several of the 14 kestrel nestlings visited by the group on this day.

While U.S. Geological Survey certification is required to open the nest boxes to retrieve the small raptors, volunteers of all ages are allowed to help hold the nestlings during the 15 minutes the chicks spend outside their nest boxes. The kestrels are warm and soft, yet they deliver sharp pricks with their beaks and talons. The nestlings call with a high staccato kick-kick-kick-kick. On one occasion, the call warranted a richer, concerned response from high above.

“That’s mom overhead,” someone said. The volunteers visited the nestlings while the parents were away, most likely while hunting for western fence lizards, mice or small birds to feed their young.

Most of the Central Oregon birders are members of various bird groups including the East Cascade Audubon Society. They connected with The Peregrine Fund when it approached Don McCartney to help with the American Kestrel Partnership. McCartney collects local volunteers’ annual reports and data and uploads it to the partnership’s website.

Volunteers renew their banding permits with the USGS every two years. The banding helps researchers track the kestrels’ lifespan and migration habits.

“People who study birds are very happy to get the information because you just don’t see it every day,” Anderson said, adding that unlike kestrels, birds like larger raptors and water fowl are easier to study because they can wear electronic tracking devices that are heavier than the kestrels’ small metal bands.

“But it’s only a matter of time before they develop one small enough to put on a kestrel,” Anderson said.

The local volunteers waited four seasons before the bands provided feedback from places like Sacramento, California, and Mexico.

Sometimes, the bands are discovered when the kestrels have died due of natural causes, collisions with cars, or poachers. Other times, photographers with high-end lenses can zoom in on a living bird’s numeric code.

A hope for future generations

For some volunteers, such as Graham Anderson, who’s 9 and Jim’s grandson, the payoff in helping the kestrels is immediate and tactile. He cradled a kestrel in his hands as he watched the baby raptor work its hooked beak and blink its dark eyes.

“They’re cute and fuzzy,” said Graham, who has helped on several kestrel outings. His older brother, Joseph Anderson, 15, looked on.

“Make sure you hold the kestrel by the body, not the neck,” Joseph told Graham, who carefully adjusted his grip.

Moments like these aren’t lost on Jim Anderson.

“The neat thing is that all my kids are in on this project,” Anderson said.

“Now they’re returning with their kids, and we still do it. I hope that their kids will catch on to (conservationism) where they live. It’s been a family thing for years and years.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com

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