Almost everyone is familiar with American Kestrels, even if they don’t know them by name. In the spring and summer, these flashy falcons are found in abundance: sitting atop trees, telephone poles, and fence posts across North America.

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Pictured above: A particularly spotty male American Kestrel in the Florida keys perched on a distribution pole
(photo credit: Jesse Watson)

Because the geographic range of this species is so vast, individuals living in different areas (e.g. Alaska vs. Florida) face different environmental conditions and may even be genetically distinct! These differences can affect timing of breeding and migration. For example, kestrels in Alaska will breed later and will migrate south in the fall, whereas kestrels in Florida will breed earlier and remain Florida residents over winter. With changing climate, timing of breeding and migration may be shifting, and the magnitude of this shift may vary for birds in different areas!

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American Kestrels are cavity-nesters that are known to use to artificial nest boxes, and this method makes for easy monitoring of breeding populations. So to begin assessing the genetic and environmental factors affecting the timing of kestrel breeding and migration, we set up a large-scale nest box study on Department of Defense sites across the United States.

Starting with our northernmost site in Alaska, we shipped our pre-made pine nest boxes to our site, and hopped on a plane to meet them there. Next, we headed to New York, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Washington, New Mexico, and California to drill nest boxes onto trees, power poles, and other elevated structures.

Pictured above: Nest boxes await shipping in a storage locker; Aislinn displays 20 bird boxes shipped to our Florida site; and Rich, Anjolene, Aislinn, and Casey post nest boxes on sites in Indiana, Alaska, Florida, and Washington.

We saw habitat from boreal forest, to long-leaf pine, to corn-fields, coastal wetland, and arid deserts, and wildlife like alligators, roadrunners, and moose. It was amazing to think about how kestrels are found in such diverse and interesting places!

Row 1 (left to right): Alaska, New York, Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina
Row 2: Florida, Texas, Washington, California, New Mexico

Along with beautiful views, each site brought with it a different set of challenges. From muddy, slippery driving and flat tires in Alaska, to bark-too-thick-to-drill-into in North Carolina, gnarled and crooked trees in Texas and Washington, to a lack of trees all together in New Mexico. Luckily for our team we had tremendous support from our Department of Defense (DoD) partners. Project co-investigator and DoD research biologist Richard Fischer facilitated communication with partners across sites, and he and fellow DoD biologist Jacob Jung met up with us on our travels to post boxes in Indiana and Kansas. We also partnered with a number of exceptional DoD biologists on each site who provided the on-the-ground knowledge, logistical help, tools, and human-power needed to get our nest boxes posted.

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In fall 2017 our team posted 200 nest boxes within Department of Defense installations in 10 states, in addition to two states which had pre-existing nest box programs. And with that we wait…. to see if kestrels across the U.S. take to their new homes, and become part of a large-scale, full-annual study of their species.

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Above: A female American Kestrel in Idaho broods her newly hatched nestlings inside a nest box


Special thanks to our on-the-ground DoD partners:

Fort Wainwright, Alaska: Daniel Rees, Garrett Savory
Fort Drum, New York: Jeffrey Bolsinger
Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge, Indiana: Joseph Robb
Fort Riley, Kansas: Shawn Stratton, Jeff Keating
Fort Bragg, North Carolina: Jessie Schillaci
Eglin AFB, Florida: Rodney Felix, Justin Johnson
Fort Hood, Texas: Amber Dankert, Jackelyn Ferrer-perez
Yakima Training Center, Washington: Colin Leingang, Jennifer Bader
Camp Pendleton, California: Bill Berry, Diane Walsh, Katrina Murbock, Sherri Sullivan
White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico: Patricia Cutler, Doug Burkett
Lucky Peak, Idaho: Keith Hyde
Dugway Proving Grounds, Utah: Robbie Knight

 

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