A baby kestrel in the Hopewell Valley. (Photo by Gemma Milly/FoHVOS.)

The population of North America’s smallest falcon, the American kestrel, is declining in the Northeast, with the bird added to New Jersey’s list of threatened species in 2012. The drop is linked to ever-expanding development throughout the state.

“Loss of grasslands due to development and a lack of suitable nest cavities are widely agreed to be among the reasons for their declining numbers,” explains FoHVOS land steward and licensed bird bander Tyler Christensen, “Humans have been responsible for major changes to the landscape in New Jersey, and this has resulted in hardship for many of our state’s native plant and animal species. In order to reduce our environmental footprint, the onus is on us to protect these species that we have affected. To do this, we must at times intervene and provide them with what we’ve historically damaged or taken away.”

Fortunately, FoHVOS Community Conservation has enlisted help from an amazing cross section of volunteers to bring kestrels back to Hopewell Valley.

The New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Endangered and Nongame Species program provided a Conserve Wildlife Matching Grant to cover materials for 50 kestrel nesting boxes. The boxes are needed since kestrels do not construct their own nests; historically, they have nested in tree cavities created by other birds like woodpeckers or by decomposition. Today, kestrels most often nest in buildings and in artificial nest boxes.

Volunteers will build kestrel nesting boxes during the first three weekends in March. Families at Painted Oak Nature School, the Cambridge School and Cub Scout troop 1776 have already committed to help.

“When we announced that we were hosting a gathering to build kestrel boxes at the school, registration filled up almost immediately,” said Courtney Peters-Manning, Cambridge School director. “It’s a great family activity and children naturally feel good about providing a home for the kestrels.”

Helen Corveleyn, STEM facilitator at Hopewell Elementary School, will build kestrel boxes with her Green Team, “Interactive, conservation projects like this are not only educational but also are really engaging for our students,” she said.

Once the boxes are built, volunteers mount the boxes about 10 feet up off the ground. A team from Bloomberg plans to come out the last week of March to begin installation. Bloomberg staff have helped FoHVOS with land restorations for years, but this is the first time they have worked on a bird conservation project.

Volunteers are still needed for all phases of the program including folks to regularly check the boxes. In the past, a monitor needed to climb a ladder to see inside the nest. Now we just look using a camera on stick. Think of it as bird selfies.

Finally, we need private property owners who are willing to host kestrel nest boxes. Kestrels generally require large open fields (at least one acre, but the bigger the better) with minimal human activity during the nesting season (April – July).

FoHVOS’s existing kestrel conservation program includes a handful of boxes that we maintain and monitor. This project is a major expansion and it’s been pretty remarkable to see all these different groups step up to join a FoHVOS Community Conservation initiative.

Township committee members plan to come out and build bird boxes with the public. “Hopewell Valley has shown that we can accomplish great things when we all work together and we are thrilled to do our part and hope this project results in increases for the kestrel population,” said Kristin McLaughlin, mayor of Hopewell Township.

Lisa Wolff is the executive director of Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space. She can be reached by email at lwolff@fohvos.org.