Jim Metzinger ‘88, director of Hiram College’s 545-acre field station, is on a mission to protect American kestrels locally. Sightings of the small, but mighty gray-blue and rust-colored fowl, commonly known as falcons, are few and far between these days. But it wasn’t always this way.
Metzinger recalls his thrill as a child spotting kestrels along the Ohio turnpike on family outings to Youngstown. “They’re pretty cool little birds,” says Metzinger, who has been working to spread some falcon love with recent Hiram environmental studies graduate Simon Bednarski.
Today’s kestrel population in Ohio is 40 percent of what it was 50 years ago, according to Metzinger.
Why are the birds disappearing?
The loss of grasslands and traditional farming methods could be partially to blame. Newer clean-farming techniques, whereby growers remove grassy areas, may eliminate weeds and pests, but also degrade kestrels’ breeding grounds, according to Sarah Mabey, an associate professor of environmental studies at Hiram. These barren fields, she says, present problems beyond the summer months. Without protective cover crop, the scanty fields harbor few small mammals upon which migrating and wintering kestrels can prey.
“Northeast Ohio is important for breeding kestrels, but it’s also an important wintering area and migratory throughway for kestrels from Canadian populations. Keeping open-field habitats in Ohio ecologically healthy and productive will have value for kestrels across the annual cycle,” Mabey says.
Until such broader issues are addressed, Metzinger andBednarski, with the help of some young citizen scientists, are working to attract kestrels with nest boxes.
The first of these nests, designed by Bednarski, rises over an open field at the James H. Barrow Biological Field Station. Attached to a towering, steel-reinforced pole, the nest box is a straight shot from Metzinger’s office window where he can monitor awaited activity. A kestrel flying to and from the nest box with food in tow would almost certainly signal that chicks reside inside the roost, Metzinger says. So far, the nest has acted as a magnet for starlings, but Metzinger isn’t discouraged.
“It can take several years for kestrels to establish themselves,” says Metzinger, who is willing to wait as long as it takes. In fact, he and Bednarski plan to place nest boxes throughout the rural farms and fields of Mantua, Garrettsville, Shalersville and Hiram with the help of Crestwood Middle School. Students in the school’s Pre-Engineering Academy, instructed by Ed Judd, have been developing prototype nest boxes, the first of which they installed on school grounds earlier this month.
“The goal is to engage Ed’s students with this long-term conservation issue,” says Metzinger. He says he hopes these youngsters become inspired to build and monitor future nest boxes in this area.
Like Bednarski, who grew up in nearby Nelson, many of the middle school students enjoy daily country life on broad land parcels that could serve as prime spots for the nest boxes. Ultimately, Metzinger and Bednarski would like to see residents of these communities set up nest boxes on their properties where breeding birds can find refuge.
“By working with kids, many of whom live on farms, we hope to encourage them and their families to install nest boxes,” says Metzinger, who adds that kestrels are not a threat to local farming operations, “They hunt both small rodents and large insects like grasshoppers that can have an impact on farmers’ crops. They are the perfect farmers’ helpers.”