Environment
6:34 am
Tue April 24, 2012

Citizen Scientists Get Chance To Help Declining Kestrels

It’s nesting time for many birds in Idaho, including the American Kestrel.  In fact, you can watch a pair of kestrels sitting on their eggs right now, through a live webcam.  It’s part of a new project by the Peregrine Fund that launches today to get people involved in helping gather information n kestrels.  The goal is to help scientists understand why the American Kestrel is in steady decline across North America.

Meet Bob.  He’s an American Kestrel. Bob lives at the World Center for the Birds of Prey in Boise. 

“Kestrel is North America’s smallest, and most colorful falcon species,” explains Matt Giovanni. He's a research biologist with the Peregrine Fund. “It’s prey tend to be small species, like grasshoppers, mice, lizards, and small snakes.”

Bob lives inside, helping educate people about kestrels.  Outside, Bob’s wild cousins are in trouble.  Kestrels appear to be declining across North America - more than 40 percent over the last 45 years according to bird surveys.  The Peregrine Fund wants to know why and also how to help the birds survive.  Giovanni is part of this effort called the American Kestrel Partnership.  It involves citizen scientists, web cams, and nest boxes.

“The kestrel box is right outside this door. We try to minimize disturbance to the box,” says Giovanni.  This wooden nest box is where a mated pair of kestrels has made their home.  The female spends most of her time inside, sitting on the eggs.“Oh, and there’s the male right there…” The male kestrel flies up to the hole in the nest box and offers the female a snack.   “He’s got prey too, you can hear the female receiving it in the box, she’s chattering…” 

The female refuses lunch and the male flies off, carrying his spurned gift.  This little domestic squabble, as Giovanni calls it, was caught on camera.  This nest box has one camera inside, and one outside, sending a live video stream of the kestrels on the web.  Anyone can watch the birds, and report what they see. “They can record in our data program. They can say I saw the male kestrel bring in prey, submit, and then it adds to a stream of data logs so you can see what other people have seen in recent hours and days.” 

The Kestrel Cam allows internet watchers to become citizen scientists, reporting the activities of this Boise pair of kestrels. The Peregrine Fund wants to expand that reach.  So it’s encouraging citizen scientists all over the country to build their own nest boxes and join the American Kestrel Partnership.“Once every week or two, any individual of any age goes up to their nest box, they lift up the lid, they count the number eggs and nestlings, write it down as data, and then submit it on our project website.” 

Giovanni says there may be several reasons why the kestrel is declining, changing land use, environmental contaminants, climate change, they just don’t know for sure.  With a nationwide network of data from nest boxes, biologists can try to find out what’s going on.  They can also learn the best places to put nest boxes, to encourage the birds to breed. “You know, if you put it up, even in suburbs, even in urban areas, industrials areas, chances are you’re going to have breeding kestrels in a couple years,” says Giovanni.  “And it’s just a great time to watch them raise their families, they’re quite charismatic, they’re quite sassy little birds.” 

Biologist Matt Giovanni says citizen scientists will gather the data, while professional scientists will interpret it.  He hopes through the partnership to generate the largest database on kestrels in history, to help this “sassy little bird” survive.