When I read about a nest watch project in Kittson County, I was immediately intrigued. I’ve monitored many bird’s nests the past few years and the anticipation of the tiny eggs and subsequent baby birds has been a real kick. So, I clipped the article from the local paper and emailed the Agassiz Audubon Center, the area organizer of the Peregrine Fund project. The director replied with details and invited me to meet with her to learn more. I readily agreed.
I learned that this is a true community project utilizing citizen science. American Kestrels, a kind of falcon, have experienced a long-term population decline throughout many regions in North America. This nationwide research project studies nesting behavior and generates data to help inform scientists about nesting performance as it relates to environmental factors like land use, environmental toxins, climate or the relationship with other species. At the same time, a place is provided for kestrels to nest, which has the potential to boost their shrinking numbers. Volunteers, including kids, monitor a box each week from May to July and record what they find with notes and a digital photo. The project was undertaken just south of here in Marshall County last summer. One box yielded five baby kestrels that were banded and photographed. There’s hope those kestrels will return to the area this spring.
The 9th grade shop class at Kittson Central High in Hallock constructed the nesting boxes this winter with materials purchased from monies donated by area service organizations. Each box is branded with KC on its front. The shop teacher has expressed an interest in adding this to the curriculum each year if funding can be secured. There’s even talk of turning some future shop projects into a money making opportunity for the school, selling the student-built boxes and other bird houses to the public. Agassiz Audubon is hopeful, as am I, that boxes might also be created by the students to house and monitor Boreal and Northern Saw-whet Owls for a similar project in the county.
Heidi, the Agassiz Audubon Director, needed help recruiting potential volunteers to monitor the boxes. It became my mission to identify interested people and then convince them to commit to monitoring the boxes this spring and summer in Kittson County. I was pleasantly surprised by the positive response and in no time enlisted the necessary help.
Next, I tagged along with Heidi and local utility company workers to install the poles and boxes. It took two days and two utility companies to cover the county and position all the poles into the frozen ground. The first was in March, about a month ago. It was 1 below zero when we began, though it did climb to 18 degrees. The upside was a mesmerizing hoar frost that covered the trees and plants. Locations, including a seed business, two on gas company property that will be monitored by their staff and others throughout the countryside, had been carefully chosen. The boxes were installed to face south and needed to be in relatively open, grassy areas that can be safely accessed and are visible from the road.
The poles had to reach 5 feet into the ground and stand at least 10 feet above ground. The utility companies donated the retired fifteen feet poles and their time and expertise. One of the utility workers told us that his son had built some of the boxes in shop class. I was amazed by the equipment and work required to install the poles and the relative ease of the utility workers in doing so.
A few weeks later we joined workers from another electric company to install the rest of the poles and boxes at the county fair grounds, two schoolyards, near a ball field and in the country. Because it was April, we expected it to be warmer and, for a lack of better words, easier. The temperature was a cold 13 and the wind extremely bitter. Several feet of snow still covered the ground. I couldn’t believe our luck and I felt for those utility workers. Yet, they never complained and didn’t even seem fazed. Talk about tough. We helped fill the boxes with bedding material and then secured them to the poles. The whole process was relatively snag-free and the rest of the poles were standing before mid-afternoon.
Now, the monitoring begins. At this time, that means driving by the boxes to observe if any kestrels are near. Earlier this week four more inches of snow fell. That, added to the already reluctant spring and significant snow cover, means that the birds are likely to be behind schedule. But I’m excited.
What appeals to me most, besides what we might find in the boxes, is the opportunity to promote an interest in the outdoors and birds, something that is often strangely missing from our rural area. Everyone who has played a role in the project, from the shop students to the utility workers, to the teams monitoring the boxes to those service groups who donated money, has a reason to be invested in its success and a newfound connection to the outdoors. And, who knows where that connection might lead. That alone makes the project worthwhile.