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NCCC students hope to attract rare bird

May 3, 2017
By JUSTIN A. LEVINE - Outdoors Writer ( , Lake Placid News

SARANAC LAKE - American kestrels are a type of falcon that is rarely found in the Adirondacks, but a group of environmental science students thinks it may have found an ideal location to attract the birds to Saranac Lake.

Last week, students in Julie King's environmental science lab at North Country Community College installed a nesting box at the school's soccer field with the assistance of John O'Connor from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Kestrels are the smallest and most widespread of the falcons, and can be found all around New York, except for the mountainous areas. While the birds are widespread, their numbers have dropped significantly in the last several decades.

Article Photos

North Country Community College environmental science students install a nesting box for American kestrels at NCCC’s soccer field in Saranac Lake last Friday. The location was chosen because it overlooks a large field, but has woods nearby.
News photo — Justin A. Levine

"Despite their distribution and relative abundance throughout much of the eastern United States, kestrel numbers have significantly and steadily declined in the past 50 years, particularly in the Northeast," according to the DEC's kestrel web page. "Regions surrounding the Adirondack, Allegany and Catskills mountains, as well as suburban areas of the lower Hudson Valley and Long Island have experienced the greatest declines."

King said O'Connor came to the class for a presentation, and afterward, King asked if the class could set up a nesting box.

"I said, 'Hey, can we get one of those?'" King said. "And he said 'Sure!' So they're pretty willing to set them up around the Adirondacks.

"So we picked out the site and decided the class would do the digging, and it's pretty neat," she said. "So hopefully after monitoring, we'll get one."

King said this kind of hands-on experience is important and can help the students determine what type of science they'd like to study.

"They're learning about what you can do to help; they're learning about what sort of species are around here. A lot of them didn't even know what an American kestrel was," she said. "It's harder and harder for wildlife to find places to live. So this site was good because it has a big open field for the things (kestrels) like to eat, like grasshoppers.

"They like to be near woods but in the open, so this was a really good site. It has most of the things we were looking for in a good habitat."

King said some of her students are in the class to meet science requirements, but that most are hoping to go on for further schooling and eventually careers in environmental science. King herself is a graduate of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Foresty's Ranger School, and taught at Paul Smith's College for more than a decade before moving over to NCCC.

The DEC partnered with the class to pick an appropriate location, and settled on the top of the hill at the soccer field. O'Connor explained to the class that a mix of wide-open fields combined with the close proximity of the woods is exactly the type of habitat that kestrels like. He also pointed up to the power lines just across the street, and said the birds like the view afforded by the lines. In fact, the main photo of a kestrel on the DEC's website shows it gripping a large grasshopper while perched on a cable.

"American kestrels appear to favor woodpecker-excavated cavities in isolated dead trees in the middle of large grasslands, but they will also nest in the edges of the woods, natural and man-made crevices, and nest boxes," according to the website.

O'Connor had the bird box already assembled, but enlisted the students to dig a hole that a pipe was then driven into. The nesting box was attached to another pipe, which was slipped inside the first. All told, the installation took less than 30 minutes, and the nesting box now sits overlooking the soccer field.

Kestrels are small, about the size of a bluejay, and dine on a wide variety of foods, from small rodents to insects. The mix of the soccer field, nearby woods and former dump should provide the type of habitat and dietary needs the birds require.

According to the DEC, kestrels often mate for life, with males arriving at breeding grounds before the females. The males engage in elaborate displays of aerial acrobatics in an effort to woo females, who then lay a clutch of eggs to hatch. Chicks hatch after about 30 days, and can often fly just another month after that.

The DEC says that almost half of all kestrel deaths are caused by humans, with a lot of those coming from collisions with motor vehicles. The website also predicts that number will rise as more and better roads with higher speed limits are established.

For more information on American kestrels, go to



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