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Tracking the kestrel

Nelson native and JHS graduate Andy Albertsen poses for a picture with one of his kestrel box nests. (Contributed)1 / 2
A picture of the American Kestrel. ( / 2

It wasn’t long ago that Nelson native Andy Albertsen didn’t know what an American kestrel was, but that’s changed a lot in the course of six months.

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Now Albertsen is the leader of a research project that hopes to help provide answers as to why the bird’s population is declining throughout different regions of North America.

Albertsen got that opportunity as a senior at the University of Minnesota-Crookston. The school offers undergraduates the chance to participate in research projects that range from a wide variety of subjects.

As a natural resources major, Albertsen knew exactly which one he wanted to pursue when he saw an opportunity to set up a nest-box monitoring program for the bird that is commonly known as the sparrow hawk.

“It’s really opened my eyes to what’s going on with this specific species,” Albertsen said. “Surprisingly enough, when your attention is raised to something, you start seeing them all over the place.”

The project began last fall under the guidance of associate professor John Loegering. That’s when Albertsen started looking more into the subject and discovered it had potential to go from an academic study through the school to one that involves the whole community.

Albertsen reached out for advice from Heidi Hughes of the Middle-Snake-Tamarac Rivers Watershed District, who had started a similar project in Warren. From there, he needed the help of others in the city to get the nests set up near their ideal habitat by the time the birds migrated back to the area this spring.

Students at the university built the nesting boxes. Retired telephone poles from PMK Electric were donated to place them on and Otter Tail Power Company installed the 10 nesting stations on private and public land within the city limits of Crookston. Albertsen has since hosted public presentations at the city library and on campus, along with using radio and newspapers to get the public involved.

“[I’m] Just trying to spread the word among the Crookston community about the bird in general and the box program,” he said. “I’m trying to find a few of those bird watchers who are stashed away in the woodwork and get them to help out a little bit.”

The study relies on help from the community in tracking and logging data. Bird watchers will track whether or not the kestrels are using the boxes. They will monitor the number of eggs there are and take pictures to help track the age of the chicks.

The watchers will visit the nests once a week. The goal is to gather solid data, but do so in a manner that does not cause stress to the mother and force her out of the nest.

“We should get a good read on how they’re doing, how they’re progressing,” Albertsen said. “Then later in the summer after hopefully having successful chicks, we’ll be having a banding event that the public can come out to.”

The project is one of hundreds of small-scale studies like this being conducted that contribute to a nationwide research project being done through the American Kestrel Partnership. The study is helping increase awareness about the kestrel, while monitoring the population to get an understanding of why the birds are declining in some areas more than others.

All the data collected will be submitted into a large database through the American Kestrel Partnership. The kestrel is North America’s smallest falcon and has a range that stretches over much of the country and into Canada.

“Crookston is within that Prairie Pothole Region where there’s been a 43 percent decline in the kestrel population since the mid-1960s,” Albertsen said. “It will be one small chunk of the pie to see if the kestrels are decreasing in these areas and is there a bigger change going on in these specific regions compared to others.”

The data that they gather this year is part of a long-term monitoring effort that Albertsen will watch closely from a distance after he graduates. He has been accepted into Iowa State University where he plans to attend graduate school starting next fall.

A year ago, Albertsen never would have imagined being so involved in a study on the kestrel. Now he’ll find it hard to leave behind an effort that has come to mean so much to him.

“It’s kind of a tough thing to start a project from the ground up and then kind of walk away and hope it continues on,” he said. “I have an advisor on campus who has been helping me out a lot, and he said he’ll take it over. I’ll do everything in my power to turn over everything that I’ve done and try to leave it in as good of shape as possible. I’ll definitely keep in touch, make sure it’s progressing and see if there’s any way I can help out from afar.”

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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