Aug 14, 2023 - News

The American kestrel is starting to vanish in Iowa

An American Kestrel looking at the camera

The American kestrel. Photo: Jon G. Fuller/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The American kestrel — one of Iowa's most ubiquitous and cutest birds of prey — is starting to vanish from our landscape.

Why it matters: If you're driving down a gravel road, kestrel sightings along telephone wires and fence posts may make it seem like the raptors are doing well in the state.

  • But while they can be found in all 99 counties, they've lost more than half their population in North America between 1966 to 2019.
  • If the trend continues, we can expect another 50% decline by 2075, Anna Buckardt-Thomas, an avian ecologist at the Iowa DNR, tells Axios.

State of play: American kestrels are just bigger than a robin and are the smallest falcons in North America. They're known for their rusty brown and blue colorings and prefer open grasslands to hunt, including in urban areas.

  • For humans, they serve as pest control in our ecosystem as their primary prey are insects and small mammals, like voles and mice, Buckardt-Thomas says.

What's happening: Over the last 10 years, population trends show they're declining in Iowa and are considered the "greatest conservation need" in the state's wildlife action plan.

  • The loss of grassland is hurting their habitats, while pesticides harm their breeding success and availability of insects.
  • Changing farming practices have also harmed their habitats, including the loss of hedgerows, Buckardt-Thomas says.

Of note: When they can't find a suitable habitat year after year, they're displaced and breeding success rates lower.

What they're saying: "They're part of the farming heritage of Iowa. A kestrel on the line and a kestrel on the farmstead is just a common sight," Buckardt-Thomas says. "It would just be a real shame if they were gone."

Zoom in: In Polk County, one of the kestrel's biggest challenges is the removal of dead trees, which they like to nest in, says Doug Sheeley of Polk County Conservation.

  • To make up for that, his organization placed a dozen kestrel boxes at the Chichaqua Bottoms and found a 75% nest success rate.

How to help: Suburban residents especially can build their own boxes and place them in their yards if they live near an open habitat, like a bike trail, he says.


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