Every bird lover has a favorite birding memory. What's yours? Too hard to choose? I agree: mine is tied between an awesome loon concert in the Chequamegon National Forest, and one involving baby birds. I'll tell you about the loons a different day. But first:
This past June, many of our members took the opportunity to join Madison Audubon and leaders of the Central Wisconsin Kestrel Research program for what might have been the greatest birding activity ever: banding baby kestrels.
As a rookie birder myself, I shared in this new experience with eyes as big as saucers and heart fluttering in excitement. This wasn't looking at pretty birds in the distance through binoculars. This was holding fluffy little handfuls of unrealized might who inspired feelings of awe, respect, and even maternal adoration. This was watching professional biologists carefully handle fragile wings and legs as they took measurements and placed metal bands around the chicks' ankles, and getting to ask 100 questions about who, what, when, where, and why. This was getting a first-hand look at how kestrel boxes are made and where they are placed, and learning about the decline and rebound of these tiny falcons.
If you can't tell, it was a great day.
That great day is owed largely to Brand Smith, volunteer kestrel box coordinator and former Madison Audubon president. Since 2009 and with support from Madison Audubon, Brand has spearheaded the effort to construct and put up kestrel nest boxes in south-central Wisconsin, and coordinate dozens of volunteers who check what's happening in the nests. Kestrels would naturally nest in cavities in old snags, but cultural practices result in very few standing dead trees in the landscape. So they rely on help from people to find nesting sites.
The program started with an ambitious 33 nest boxes in 2009 and is now at a dazzling 143 boxes in seven Wisconsin counties in 2017. Volunteers adopt a nest box in the beginning of the year and visit it regularly to track progress of eggs, chicks, and adults. Brand alone monitors nearly half of the boxes and puts in thousands of miles and hours each season to do so. Data collected throughout the nesting season are sent to Wisconsin DNR and others who work with conserving kestrels in Wisconsin.
Now, results of the 2017 year are in! Of the 143 boxes Brand and Madison Audubon placed in the landscape, 56 were occupied, and a whopping 46 produced successful nests (80%!) with an average of 4.6 eggs per nest. Approximately 190 kestrels fledged from these boxes, 102 of which we had banded along with 32 adults in June. Three kestrels that Madison Audubon banded in previous years were recaptured, as well as one kestrel another group banded (meaning that adult established a new territory in our area).
We'll continue monitoring and banding kestrels, with your help. You can volunteer to monitor a box, join Madison Audubon to get a chance to band kestrel chicks next summer, or donate to Madison Audubon to keep programs like this going.
Thanks for all of your support, and keep your eyes peeled for those little falcons swooping through the prairie or perched on a fence post.
Written by Brenna Marsicek, Madison Audubon Society communications director