Age of Discovery

Age of Discovery

Kestrels are disappearing worldwide — except in Forest Grove, where they thrive. Through the Pacific University undergraduate research program, one professor and his students are studying the healthy population to find out how they can protect the species elsewhere.

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The waiting game has been short, and we have a bird within 30 minutes. 

The team springs into action. The kestrel is gently removed from the trap, a blanket is spread on the roadside dirt berm, and the process of weighing, measuring and tagging begins. (The mouse is returned to its cage in the car, no worse for the experience.)

A falconer’s hood covers the bird’s eyes and a soft jacket wraps its wings. It seems docile, but when the hood slips, the bird almost bolts.

Van Buskirk catches it in his hands, “like a ninja!” Brown exclaims.

“We’re lucky this is a young bird,” the professor replies. “An adult would have been gone. They just kind of wait for that moment when the person who has them isn’t quite paying attention.”

It takes 35 minutes for the team to finish their business, tagging the bird with a radio transmitter. That’s incredibly fast, Van Buskirk says, especially since the tagging process is still a matter of trial and error. Like the traps, the radio transmitters have had to be modified for the small birds. A falcon can only carry about 3 percent of its body weight unnoticed, meaning this 119-gram bird’s transmitter has to weigh about the same as a penny. The team has experimented with different transmitters and different ways to attach them, and today’s method is a leg-loop harness that allows the radio to lay unobtrusively on the bird’s lower back. The loops are made of Teflon catheter tubing, which won’t chafe or cut the bird, and the whole unit will shet within a year.

THE KESTREL SPREADS HER TAIL FEATHERS for just a moment, showing off brown-red plumage, then she takes flight. Brown and Novero watch her through spotting scopes, then grab their telemetry gear — handheld antennae and radio transmitters — to try to pick up her signal.

Tagging the birds is exciting, but it’s only the beginning of the project. They will now spend hours tracking the birds’ activity, documenting the vegetation in various sectors of land, and mapping all of the data on computers back at Pacific.

The information will be added to Van Buskirk’s ongoing research, which will require years of data. This is his fourth year studying kestrels, with different undergraduate students each summer. The ongoing study is supported in part by a Murdock College Science Research Program grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust.

While Brown and Novero won’t be present for the final outcome of the long-term research, they stand to gain from the experience.

Both will develop their senior projects out of the summer of research. Brown has been looking specifically at kestrel nesting sites. Kestrels are cavity dwellers, often building their nests inside abandoned woodpecker holes. She has been examining nest sites in ash and oak groves to identify the conditions that seem to work best. Novero, meanwhile, is interested in the land characteristics that appear to contribute to nesting success and is running a toxicity study on addled eggs to see how the mother bird’s diet might impact breeding success.

Both said the fieldwork has given them insight for the future. Novero hopes to work outdoors, perhaps with Fish & Wildlife or the Forest Service, while Brown said she has always dreamed of becoming a primatologist.

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