By Ethan Hatchett
Just outside the small town of Butler, the southeastern subspecies of American kestrel has staved off extirpation – for now. Sandhills and woodlands near the Taylor County community had 70-80 successful nests this summer.
The encouraging totals mark the culmination of 17 years of work by biologists and volunteers to ensure that Georgia has at least one healthy population of the tiny raptors, North America’s smallest falcon.
“Before our restoration effort, the kestrels were on a slow slide towards extinction,” said Nathan Klaus, a senior DNR wildlife biologist.
The southeastern American kestrel is unique in several ways. Unlike its northern counterparts, it is nonmigratory, spending its entire life in the southeastern U.S. The subspecies also has strict habitat requirements. It thrives in open pine savannas, naturally nesting in cavities abandoned by the red-cockaded woodpecker, a threatened species. Kestrels are an apex predator (watch) in this ecosystem. The adults have few natural predators, and the kestrels feed on everything from lizards to smaller birds. One of their common names is “sparrowhawk.”
In 2005, a seemingly innocuous change in the design of had a significant effect on southeastern American kestrels. The older poles had hollow metal tubes that kestrels would nest in, far above predators such as snakes and raccoons that would usually threaten the eggs and young.
As the nest-friendly structures were replaced by structures without the accessible tubes, the already dwindling population of southeastern American kestrels began to free fall. Jonathan Stober, then a conservation biologist at the Jones Center at Ichauway, feared the subspecies would go extinct in Georgia.
Stober pulled together a coalition focused on restoring the kestrels. Using the then newly acquired Sandhills Wildlife Management Area in Taylor County, Stober and partners started erecting wood duck boxes to serve as nesting sites for kestrels. They weren’t sure if the raptors would use the boxes but they knew nest cavities were needed.
When Stober began, Sandhills was a different WMA. The land was overgrown because it had not been burned in years. The tree canopy was closed, blocking sunlight from the forest floor. In the view of some, the WMA was primarily a sand right of way under powerlines, far from ideal kestrel habitat. But that would change.
Stober started banding kestrel nestlings to track their movement and the population. “We did the best that we could with what we had. (The kestrel population) could have easily blinked out of existence the first year.”
Although he later moved to Alabama to join the U.S. Forest Service, the recovery effort continued. Klaus took the reins in 2010. The kestrel population fluctuated up and down, but it held on. DNR began restoring habitat at Sandhills. Controlled burns were done on a regular basis. The prescribed fires were aimed at opening the canopy and returning the natural groundcover of vegetation.
Groundcover is the backbone of the longleaf pine ecosystem. Klaus and his team brought in seeds from plant species native to the area to help rebuild what had been lost. They hoped that restoring the groundcover would increase prey diversity and lead to healthier kestrels and a more robust population.
Over time, the habitat at the WMA – now split into Sandhills West and East – shifted from agricultural and forestry tracts to the desired longleaf pine savanna. With the new undergrowth came more small rodents, locusts and racerunners for the kestrels to eat. The kestrel population slowly began to grow. Other species benefited from the restoration work, as well. The numbers of loggerhead shrikes, Bachman’s sparrows and bobwhite quail increased.
This summer as during previous ones, Klaus continued banding kestrel nestlings. He charts their weights to see if the habitat restoration is improving their health. Soon, the data from this project will be used to not only gauge the success of the habitat work at Sandhills but also to inform future restoration efforts across Georgia.
The recovery of southeastern American kestrels also has been boosted by Georgia Power and other power company partners installing nest boxes high on powerlines. The move mimics the safe nesting sites of the old hollow-tube poles.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Klaus said. “The next step would be to have stable populations all over Georgia.”
Stober is pleased that his initial project turned into a success story. “Responsive conservation is important,” he said. “Georgia DNR values nongame wildlife and that makes all the difference.”
The kestrel recovery project was made possible with the cooperation and support of Georgia Power, Georgia Southern University and the Jones Center at Ichauway.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
- Learn more about Georgia’s diminishing grasslands, home of the southeastern American kestrel.
- Delve into the benefits of prescribed fire, a crucial tool used to manage land for kestrels and other imperiled wildlife that depend on habitats shaped by fire.
- Support wildlife conservation by buying a DNR license plate (specifically, the eagle, Georgia aster, hummingbird and quail/deer/turkey designs) or donating directly to Georgia’s Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund at gooutdoorsgeorgia.com or through the Go Outdoors Georgia app, available in the Apple or Google Play Store.
Ethan Hatchett is a communications assistant in DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section.