The little bird with a big history: The story of Wisconsin’s kestrel population

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Photo: Janet Eschenbauch

By: Christa Droste

Frances Hamerstrom, the only female graduate student of Aldo Leopold, is highly regarded for her work to protect the Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) from extirpation in Wisconsin. But what you might not know is that Fran was also critical in the recovery of the American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) population.

After moving from Boston to the Buena Vista Grasslands area in Wisconsin Rapids to study under Leopold, Fran indulged in her love for raptors and began working with eagles and harriers.  In 1967, Hamerstrom observed only two breeding pairs of kestrels on the Buena Vista Grasslands, and believed their numbers would improve if additional nesting opportunities were provided.  A year later, she erected 40 newly-built nest boxes, giving birth to the Central Wisconsin Kestrel Research —a long-term monitoring project she led for 30 years until her death in 1998.  Shortly after Fran’s passing, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Aldo Leopold Audubon Society breathed new life into the project by installing new nest boxes and continuing to monitor and band the kestrels.  In 2004, Janet Eschenbauch, her daughter-in-law Amber, and three very dedicated volunteers, Maureen Brocken, Sally Ellingboe, and Gerry Janz, proudly took over the project.

The American Kestrel, also known formerly as the sparrow hawk, is a grassland predator critical to maintaining shrew and mouse populations. Kestrels have a large range that extends from southern South America to the boreal forests of Alaska and Canada. However, it is estimated that kestrel numbers have actually declined by as much as 48 percent in most of the eastern United States. “Stable numbers in the central United States are offset by sharp declines in the northeast and west coast,” explained Janet Eschenbauch, director of the program.

Although kestrels require open spaces, they are secondary-cavity nesters that tend to utilize old woodpecker holes, natural tree cavities, and rock crevices. They also nest in small openings found on buildings, making them well-suited to human-dominated environments such as New York City, where you can find a healthy breeding population.  However, a combination of the loss of small farms, urbanization, and reforestation has limited habitat and food that kestrels require to thrive in their range.  Additional anthropogenic-related threats such as communication towers, wind farms, pesticides and rodenticides have also aided in their decline.

On the bright side, kestrels are one species that may benefit from climate change.  As a generalist that preys on rodents, snakes, insects, small lizards, and even small birds, they are likely to fare better than species that specialize on a particular food source. Phenotypic mismatch has also allowed kestrels to begin nesting earlier (21 days earlier than 20 years ago), allowing them to claim territories sooner, giving kestrels an advantage in successfully rearing and fledging chicks.“Fledglings are a bit older, stronger, and wiser when they begin migrating south,” explained Eschenbauch.  However, she added that the changing climate “also brings late winter and early spring storms, which may cause an increased rate of nest failure.”  Furthermore, prey species such as frogs and snakes that depend on snowpack for insulation may be negatively impacted by an annual reduction in winter precipitation.  However, rodents will most likely benefit from warmer weather, providing kestrels with a bountiful food supply.

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American Kestrel. Photo by Flickpicpete via Flickr Creative Commons.

Central Wisconsin Kestrel Research has two primary goals: 1) establish more nesting kestrels on the Buena Vista Grasslands, and 2) collect data on how management practices impact nesting kestrels.  Eschenbauch described the first as an active success, while the second goals has not been addressed yet. Each year, the group bands more than 100 chicks and as many adults as they can get their hands on. Data from banding combined with nest box monitoring reveals information such as clutch size, nest site fidelity, and general population stability and health. The long-term monitoring information on kestrel productivity “may offer insights into the cause of the population decline, revealing important information about what might be influencing downward trends,” Eschenbauch said.  Annual banding data for the Buena Vista Grasslands indicates that the number of fledglings have remained stable, thanks to the group’s efforts. “Field research is a very rewarding experience for all of us – this not a job, but a passion,” Eschenbauch said.

Sharing data, advice, and know-how with other researchers is an important part of the research program’s work.  The program collaborates with the Department of Natural Resources, local landowners, and the Raptor Education Group, Inc., a raptor rehabilitation center based in Antigo, WI, to place young kestrels in age-appropriate nest boxes.  “It gives the orphans a chance to grow and fledge with natural parents,” Eschenbauch explained.  The program’s expertise is also shared with up-and-coming practitioners through a Raptor Field Techniques class taught by Eugene Jacobs in conjunction with the Linwood Springs Research Station.  “Sometimes it is doing things outside the normal realm of field research that brings us the greatest joy,” Eschenbauch said.

So, what can you do to help? The greatest contributions to the program are made through donations of volunteer time and financial support. Through their Adopt a Kestrel Nest Box Program, you can adopt a nest box for $50, which is used to replace worn-out nest boxes, replace equipment, and cover travel monitoring costs. Aside from donations, the program stresses education and involvement in ornithological conservation groups and initiatives across Wisconsin such as the Christmas Bird Count and the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative. Private landowners can also make a huge impact by using alternatives to rodenticides, which poison raptor prey, often harming and killing their natural predators.  The program also urges people to be aware of their local wildlife rehabilitates and know how to contact them regarding injured wildlife.

To find out more and get involved with Central Wisconsin Kestrel Research, please visit the program’s website at: http://www.kestrelresearch.com.

 

Upcoming WSCB Event – Conservation Science Communications Panel

Science Communications Word Cloud

What: Conservation Science Communications Panel
When: Thursday, January 28th, 5 p.m.
Where: Union South, the Wisconsin Ideas Room

Join us on January 28th for WSCB’s Conservation Science Communications Panel! Featuring experts from across the field, we’ll learn how to communicate and share our research with the public, the media, legislators, and other scientists. Speakers include:

Stan Temple
Stanley A. Temple is the Beers-Bascom Professor Emeritus in Conservation in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology where for 32 years he held the academic position once occupied by Aldo Leopold. He is currently a Senior Fellow with the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

Emily Meier
Emily is the director of Communications and Outreach for Madison Audubon Society, a small but fast-growing non-profit and chapter of the National Audubon Society. Emily has worked for environmental non- profits in Wyoming and Wisconsin in a variety of capacities since her graduation from UW-Madison in 2012.

Bret Shaw
Bret Shaw is the Environmental Communication Specialist for UW- Extension. He focuses on outreach activities related to facilitating campaign development for organizations dealing with natural resource management issues such as water quality, land use and environmental conservation and assessing the impact of these social marketing campaigns.

Sharon Dunwoody
Sharon Dunwoody is professor emerita at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison. In addition to being an internationally recognized scholar of science communication, she has also spent more than 30 years training both journalists and scientists in how to build effective science messages for general audiences.

Nathan Schulfer
Nathan Schulfer is a conservation practitioner who co-manages the Professional MS Program in Environmental Conservation at the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Nathan’s work at Nelson focuses on recruitment and mentorship of emerging conservation leaders through the Professional MS, while leading the Institute’s efforts to strengthen networks with NGO’s and government units on a global scale.

Call for NACCB abstracts now open!

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Submission of abstracts for oral, poster, and speed presentations is now open for the 2016 North America Congress for Conservation Biology, the theme of which is, Communicating Science for Conservation Action. The conference will be held in Madison, Wisconsin July 17-20, 2016.

Deadline: January 20, 2016

The scientific program will include plenary sessions, invited symposia, workshops, organized discussions, short courses, poster sessions, and concurrent sessions of contributed oral presentations and speed presentations.  Due to the high level of attendance expected at the meeting and, consequently, limited time and space for oral presentations; poster and speed presentations are strongly encouraged.

Criteria for selection

To increase the probability that your abstract will be accepted in your preferred presentation format, please consider the following criteria carefully:

  1. Scientific merit
  2. Application to conservation biology
  3. Clarity of presentation (e.g. abstract begins with a clear statement of an issue and ends with a substantive conclusion)

All presenting authors must register for the meeting by the early registration deadline of April 25, 2016.

For more information, visit scbnacongress.org.

2016-2017 WSCB Board of Directors Nominations Now Open

Now calling for dedicated conservation researchers and professionals to be a part of the leadership team for the Wisconsin Chapter of SCB

The call for nominations for the 2016-2017 WSCB Board is now open. If you are interested in becoming a board member* or would like to nominate an individual, please email Krysta Koralesky by December 10th with your intent. Please include professional or academic affiliation and a 3-5 sentence bio. Elections will occur in January among voting members.

The WSCB Board of Directors is an interactive leadership committee of 8 individuals who help direct and implement the goals of our Chapter. Board meetings occur on a monthly basis. Board member responsibilities include organizing and attending chapter meetings; planning guest speakers, lectures, workshops, panels, and trainings; coordinating member field trips and work days; directing the policy committee; communicating chapter business and conservation-related information and news; planning member events; and advising general chapter structure.

*To become a board member or to vote in elections, you must be a member of the Society for Conservation Biology. To become a member, visit conbio.org/membership/become-a-member.

Chapter Meeting on Wednesday, November 18th – featuring Madison Audubon’s Matt Reetz

Join us for the next WSCB Chapter Meeting on Wednesday, November 18th at 7 p.m. in UW-Madison’s Science Hall, room 15. We will hear from Madison Audubon’s executive director Matt Reetz, on what the challenges and opportunities are for conservation in Wisconsin in the context of Madison Audubon’s work. The chapter business meeting will precede at 6 p.m., and is open to all WSCB members.

Madison Audubon Society

Chapter Meeting on Wednesday, September 23rd – featuring WWA’s Tracy Hames

Join us for the next WSCB Chapter Meeting on Wednesday, September 23rd at 7 p.m. in UW-Madison’s Science Hall, room 15. We will hear from Wisconsin Wetland Association’s executive director Tracy Hames, on what the challenges and opportunities are for conservation in Wisconsin in the context of WWA’s work. The chapter business meeting will precede at 6 p.m., and is open to all. Want to get more involved in WSCB? Shoot us an email, and let us know your interests!

WSCB First Annual BBQ

Join us at James Madison Park on Thursday, September 3rd from 5pm-dusk to engage with Wisconsin’s conservation community at our First Annual BBQ! Enjoy tasty local BBQ food (incluScreen Shot 2015-07-27 at 3.07.55 PMding vegetarian options), meet other conservation practitioners, students, and researchers, and enjoy fun and games in the park!  Non-alcoholic drinks provided, and those 21+ can BYOB. To help cover the cost of the event, we would appreciate a $5 donation. In an effort to limit food waste, please help us plan by completing the survey here by August 3rd. And please share with your colleagues!

WSCB in the news

Learning how to net and identify bees at the UW Arboretum
Learning how to net and identify bees at the UW Arboretum

Thanks to all who participated in WSCB’s Bee Fest Event! We had a great time identifying the Arboretum’s bee species and learning about pollinator conservation in Wisconsin and beyond. Check out the Wisconsin State Journal’s coverage of our event here.

If you missed BeeFest, you can still get involved with pollinator monitoring in Madison! We’ll be holding a field day on Saturday, July 11th (rain date: July 12th), from 3-5 pm at the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. Come by to learn more about bee identification and help us assess pollinator diversity at the LNP. Meet in the Picnic Point parking lot. There are many more opportunities to take part in this project; fill out the form on our project page if you are interested in learning more.

Bee Fest 2015: Celebrating Wisconsin’s Pollinators

Event: Bee Fest 2015 //June 14th // 10-3 pm // UW Arboretum Visitors Center.

Brown-belted Bumblebee (Bombus griseocollis)The loss of pollinator species is one of the most pressing issues in conservation biology. You’ve probably read about the spread of white nose syndrome in bats and the collapse of honeybee colonies, but there are dozens of other pollinator species that are also declining in number. The loss of these species would have far-reaching economic and ecological impacts; animal pollinators contribute about $35 billion per year to the US economy and pollinate almost 90% of plants.

Continue reading “Bee Fest 2015: Celebrating Wisconsin’s Pollinators”