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Citizen Scientists Sought to Track Kestrels

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Judy Fahys
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Credit Judy Fahys
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Shawn Hawks and Dave Oleyar (right) of Hawkwatch prepare a nesting box at the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area in preparation for kestrel nesting.

    

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Credit National Park Service
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The numbers of American kestrels is declining. Hawkwatch International is organizing a local citizen-scientist effort to learn more about the reasons for the decline.

Biologists worry about the kestrel’s decline. So a Utah nonprofit is looking for citizen scientists to help understand the reasons behind the bird’s downward trend.

Shawn Hawks is a research biologist for Hawkwatch International in Salt Lake City. He’s driven to the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area to check nesting boxes for an upcoming research project that will involve volunteer scientists. Hawks sees a kestrel at one of the wooden boxes.

“The kestrel itself is a little bit smaller than a pigeon,” says Hawks. “They’re the smallest of North America’s falcons.  They have triangular-shaped wings for speed, long tail for agility. And the males are blue wings. The females are brown wings. So, we could tell it was a male. And it just took off a minute ago, and it cackled, making a vocal noise, defending its territory.”

Kestrel numbers are falling everywhere, with a big drop in the southern Rockies and Colorado Plateau. The Peregrine Fund is organizing a national research project with professional and citizen scientists to help unravel the mystery. Hawkwatch in Utah is looking for volunteers to track kestrel families. It’s got 120 nesting boxes in urban areas, as well as nature preserves like this, the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area. Volunteers will watch pairs and help band chicks. They’ll also monitor the fledglings learning to fly.

Dave Oleyar watches a male and a female through binoculars.

“I live for this, to be able to work with these birds,” says Oleyar. “They’re super cool, and raptors, in general, are very inspiring by how agile they are in the air and how they hunt. But to be able to see them set up and use boxes that we’re putting out for habitat for them is very rewarding and, scientifically, it’s interesting. But, just quite frankly, its cool. You want to get people out here to see that sort of thing.”

The citizen science program begins on Tuesday. 

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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