Falcons and Farmers: An Unexpected Friendship

Guest post by Zoey Greenberg at Hawk Mountain SanctuaryIf you have questions pertaining to this article, please contact author.

The concept of home is a powerful one. Many species, including our own, pour a great amount of effort into finding the “right” place to settle, hoping to establish a reliable shelter from all things harmful and threatening to their future success. As humans, we often elicit help in finding the perfect home through agents, consultants, or family and friends. However, other species do not have the same luxury and instead must locate a site with adequate features in a timely manner, weaving the potential of their species into the fabric of Spring phenology. One such species, the American kestrel (Falco spavarius) is among the nation’s most recognizable birds of prey, and makes its home in natural tree openings, old woodpecker holes, or other cavities. Unfortunately, the kestrel has recently become a subject of concern due to a nation-wide decline. While more research is needed to determine the principle causes, efforts thus far are being pooled into the investigation of habitat loss, West Nile virus, migratory connectivity, predation by other raptors, pollutants, and availability of suitable cavities. Those who hold the kestrels in their hearts are now asking themselves, what can we do to help?

The natural environment is changing rapidly, and as a result the value of collaboration has become increasingly apparent. Through the efforts of scientists, raptor enthusiasts, and local farmers, a mosaic of collaboration has been born that emphasizes a common goal of keeping kestrels in the skies. In Pennsylvania, one such relationship has been born between Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Kempton and Rodale Institute, Kutztown. Kate Harms, a research technician at Rodale, initiated a partnership between the two organizations after observing a successful Hawk Mountain kestrel nest box on the Institute’s property in 2014.

Hawk Mountain has a long-running kestrel nest box program that was initiated in the 1960s. Today, the sanctuary maintains more than 200 boxes. Volunteers Bob and Sue Robertson, and Alvernia University professor Jim Klucsarits, cleaned, checked, and maintained boxes for years. Currently, Dr. JF Therrien of Hawk Mountain and Klucsarits lead the research effort extending from western Lehigh through Berks and southern Schuylkill counties. 47 boxes were occupied by kestrels in 2017, and of those 31 successfully fledged young birds. In 2012 Hawk Mountain established a farm owner outreach program, the Farmland Raptor Project, and created brochures describing the habitat needs of the birds as well as guidelines for land owners interested in putting up boxes. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary now bands kestrels on Rodale’s property each Spring, allowing for the continued long-term monitoring of kestrel populations in Berks County which will ideally contribute to an understanding of the ecology and future of this widely admired raptor. However, Rodale has done more than just provide homes to kestrel parents; they have included raptors in a cutting-edge approach to responsible land use.

Through their engagement in an ecosystem approach to organic farming, Rodale Institute has taken steps towards innovative environmental stewardship. When asked to describe this tactic, Kate Harms mentioned regenerative agriculture, a term coined by the Institute. In essence this means “creating a farming system that isn’t just sustainable, but improves every year.” By building up soil health, utilizing cover crops, and inviting in biological pest controls such as bats and kestrels, farmers can create a self-supporting, regenerative ecosystem that fuels both economic and natural productivity.

Kestrels provide a notable ecosystem service to farmers through their predation on rodents and insects that cause crop damage. In a study to evaluate the benefit of kestrels on orchards conducted by Megan Shave at Michigan State, prey remains of voles, grasshoppers, starlings, robins, mice, and other arthropods were found inside monitored kestrel nest boxes. In addition, Shave concluded that kestrels possess attributes that make them ideal predators for pest control. Historically, studies on natural controls have focused on insectivorous (insect eating) birds. Kestrels, on the other hand, by default of being raptors, have higher energy requirements than an insect-eating bird such as a starling or a robin. This means that a kestrel living on a farm will consume a far wider array of pest species, and more of them. In addition, Shave noticed that regardless of exactly how many pest birds were being consumed by kestrels, the mere presence of a raptor seemed to deter smaller birds from nesting in the surrounding area. Her next step is to assign monetary value to the amount of fruit that could be saved across the state of Michigan if more kestrel boxes were installed. Her research provides a prime example of how economic and environmental growth need not be mutually exclusive.

At Rodale, a similar example is developing. Harms, in addition to supporting kestrel boxes, has also been conducting research on which agricultural landscapes and bat houses increase bat activity. “With climate change, we are going to see different insect populations with different booms. Bats are opportunistic, they will eat all kinds of insects . They are filling in as the night shift, and they’re free!” Harms has a positive outlook on the potential for innovative methods to alter the way we approach agriculture. “Trends are changing,” she says, “and people are starting to look at natural systems. A lot of places know they are going to need to look at more organic methods.” Harms describes Rodale’s ideology of organic farming as an effort to create a system that increases biodiversity. “When you are an organic farmer you need multiple tools in the toolbox, bat houses and kestrels boxes are just some of those tools. They are one little element in the overall picture.” Kestrels, in the eyes of those who know them best, fit snugly into this tool kit. They are a natural solution to a natural problem, and their inclusion within mindful farming practices provides an optimistic outlook for farmers and conservationists alike. Harms plans on continuing to partner with Hawk Mountain, as well as Kutztown University in hopes of incorporating more biology classes into agricultural studies. If we hold hope that tomorrow’s youth will be prepared to carry the torch forward and “fix” some of the environmental issues that now characterize our planet, then encouraging students to combine ecology with their land-use ethic is critical.

Collaboration leans on the progress of enthusiasm. One individual with an idea can morph into a long term collaboration with the potential to change the future of agriculture, of conservation, of environmental science. There is an inherent beauty in

the willingness of organizations to hold hands and walk into unchartered territory. The planet needs this type of purposeful discovery, and within the realm of creative conservation farmers, researchers, citizen scientists, students, and others are coming together to pioneer new methods of protecting raptors. As a region with a past and future rooted in agriculture, we stand to benefit immensely from holistic methods that take into account long term ecosystem health as well as economic growth. If we acknowledge the power of sharing ideas and integrating multiple fields, we may, for a change, begin to take two steps forward and no steps back.

For more information on kestrel nest boxes or how to get involved, feel free to contact Dr. JF Therrien or Katie Andrews at the email addresses listed below. If you are interested in having your property included in our nest box program, please mention this in your inquiry. We would be happy to assess your available habitat.

JF Therrien: therrien@hawkmountain.org | Katie Andrews: farmlandraptors@gmail.com

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