American Kestrels are steadily disappearing from our nation. According to data collected by the annual hawk counts and analyzed by professionals at Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA), where all of the data from all hawk watch stations across the country is sent, the American Kestrel population has been in a steady decline for the past ten years. In recent interviews with Dr. Gene Sattler, Professor of Biology at Liberty University and president of the Lynchburg Bird Club, and Bill James, volunteer coordinator for the Harvey’s Knob Hawk Watch Station on the Blue Ridge Parkway, hawk experts are all concerned for the future of this species. Although several hypotheses are being explored as reasons behind this decline, the truth is that no one knows exactly why this species, in particular, is disappearing.American Kestrels are the smallest North American species of hawk, often seen sitting on telephone wires at the edges of fields looking for small prey. They can easily be seen in flight, as they are often very vocal upon take off and landing, making quite an enjoyable spectacle of themselves. Their light and dark masked faces and mottled coloring, as well as their shape, make them fairly easy to spot even for the novice bird watcher. Their main diet is insects, hence the reason for their affinity with phone wires and fence posts at the edges of large fields where they can watch for and capture their fill of grasshoppers, moths, butterflies, dragonflies, and the like. They will also capture small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians on a good day, but these species are harder for the kestrel to catch, and do not make up the bulk of their diet.
Volunteer bird watchers come out in droves all over our country every fall to counts thousands of hawks of numerous species soaring over the various hawk migration stations from The Rockies to the Appalachian Mountains and many places in between. The first such station was established in Pennsylvania and is now called Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Lynchburg’s own Myriam Moore later established our local station in 1977, one of the first to follow Hawk Mountain’s lead, and eventually this station was located at Harvey’s Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway between Bedford and Roanoke. (More about Moore, and hawk watching in general, in the latest issue of Lynchburg Living, on stands September 1<sup>st</sup>). According to Dr. Sattler, to avoid some of the biases in the data collected from individual locations, where weather patterns and various other issues might change the numbers of birds passing over a given spot each year, researches decided to collect and compile all of the nation’s hawk count data and so HMANA was created. Today, the stations are divided into regions, each with a professional who compiles the hawk counts for that region and passes the data along to HMANA for the final analysis. HMANA then publishes their findings of the overall counts each year.
According to the HMANA website, the 2007 Conservation Status Report by Chris Farmer, coordinator for Hawk Mountain, offers four hypotheses as possible reasons for the Kestrel’s decline. His data suggests the Kestrel has been declining for thirty years, with only the sharpest declines occurring in the last decade. He first suggests contamination from DDT and its effects on reproduction in all species of raptors, via the thinning of their egg shells. He says this may still be affecting Kestrels, even though many species like the Bald Eagle are making a comeback now that this long-term contaminant has finally begun to break down. You may know that DDT is no longer legal for use in our country. This first hypothesis may very well have started the Kestrel’s decline, but it seems difficult to believe it is still heavily affecting them, when others who were nearly rendered extinct are now doing so well.
Other possible hypothesis suggested by Farmer are that of forest succession, habitat changes and dramatic changes to the landscape, perhaps particularly since this species is known through research at Hawk Mountain to “exhibit territory fidelity,” meaning they nest in the same location year after year. Large areas of territory are destroyed annually, not just by humans, but by forest fires and other natural acts. Yet another hypothesis is increased predation. Kestrels are prey for larger hawks like the Coopers Hawks, whose numbers have been increasing in the north east and other regions. Lastly, Farmer proposes West Nile Virus as a possible factor in the Kestrel’s decline. Any and all of these hypotheses may have a hand in the problem, but further research is needed.
One hypothesis, which Farmer may have intended as part of his contamination discussion, but which was not clear from the information provided, is the effect of herbicide and pesticide spraying on this species. We are a nation obsessed with killing insects and other things we like to think of simply as “pests,” We have even gone so far as to produce hybrid varieties of plants like soy and corn that can resist the effects of toxic chemicals. Then, we can blanket fields with pesticides and herbicides, quickly and easily weeding and killing every living creature in that field except for our precious crops.
In the words of the father of wildlife management, Aldo Leopold, “clean farming…employs to this end only important plants, animals, and fertilizer, and sees no need for the native flora and fauna that built the soil in the first place.” This is from his Sand County Almanac, a series of essays written in the 1940s, which urged Americans to think of “the land as one organism.” Yet, almost seventy years later, we continue to ignore his words. This continued ignorance seems to me the largest possibility for cause of the steady demise of insect eating species like the Kestrel, because not only do these pesticide and herbicide sprays kill the birds directly, but they will effectively starve them to death once their food source has been annihilated. It is frightening to think on the long-term effects of a society which continues to employ the easiest, “most efficient” methods of land use without thought to the long-term consequences to other species in the center of our food chain, which in fact also includes humans. We continue, it seems, to operate under the false assumption that humans will never become the declining species. This assumption may very be proven false if we are not able to change the way we view our relationship to the land.
But, a defeatist attitude and focusing on the crisis is a sure way to get us nowhere. Better, instead, to focus on what each of us can do. In the case of the American Kestrel, individual landowners must be willing to stop the widespread use of toxic herbicides and pesticides. Perhaps by also considering the unknown consequences of such large-scale changes to the food chain of which we are a part, one might be more willing to refrain from taking the easiest route and look for non-toxic ways to fight pests in the fields. Buying locally grown organically raised produce is perhaps one of the best ways to help. By supporting those local farms who are practicing responsible land use, you begin to tell the industrialize agricultural machine that the American consumer is no longer willing to tolerate being sold goods which come at the expense of our land and all the living creatures on it.
Unfortunately, I must take a moment to talk to the vegetarian community, because it is time you considered taking a hard look at your love of all things soy and wheat as meat substitutes. If these items are not 100% organic, then you are still just as much a part of the problem as the meat eaters of our nation. If you made the vegetarian choice to live a healthier lifestyle, you are eating things grown in all manner of toxic chemicals, and that cannot be healthy. If you are one who made the choice to avoid killing animals, you continue to kill plenty of them in the production of many of your favorite meat substitute products. By being vigilant and careful about the products you purchase, and vocal about it to your local grocer, you too can help make positive changes for the Kestrel and every other species of the food chain.
To join the annual hawk watching fun, which takes place from mid August into mid November each year, visit the HMANA website for the station nearest you. Residents of Campbell County and Bedford County can visit the Harvey’s Knob website for more information about our local station. Volunteers are needed to carry on this important data collection, and novice bird watchers only need to be able to see a large bird in the sky and point it out to the experiences volunteers, who are always glad to teach others how to identify and count hawks properly. Watching a kettle of hundreds of hawks pass over is an experience every bird lover should behold at least once in their lifetime, so come on out to your local hawk migration station this fall and watch the spectacle. Pick up a copy of Lynchburg Living for more on Harvey’s Knob and the other species of hawks commonly counted in our Blue Ridge Mountains.
Kestrel photos provided by Shutterstock.com, all other photos by Amanda C. Sandos. Special thanks to Dr. Gene Sattler and Bill James for taking the time to speak with me.