of kestrels and cows.
Kestrels are North America’s smallest and most colorful falcons. Once a common sight in our region, they have declined more than 80 percent in the last half-century. Today, they are considered “threatened” in New Jersey and a species of “special concern” in Pennsylvania. Experts believe the decline may be related to the loss of large, high-quality, grassland habitat—which the birds rely on for hunting rodents and other small prey—and the lack of suitable nesting sites.
Cowtown Rodeo in Pilesgrove Township, New Jersey, is more famous for its weekly cattle roping exhibitions than its raptor habitat, but the property offers ideal kestrel hunting grounds. The grasslands at Cowtown are so important, in fact, that 190 acres were preserved and are now managed as New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Featherbed Lane Wildlife Management Area. In 2018, a conservation easement preserved 375 additional acres. It stipulates the land must remain as pasture to protect the Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and American Kestrels found there. Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “grassland of special significance” funding, with assistance from the Open Space Institute’s Bayshore-Highlands Fund, it’s the first time the USDA program was used to preserve grasslands in New Jersey. Natural Lands’ Steve Eisenhauer helped negotiate the preservation effort.
“The connection between livestock and kestrels is interesting,” said Steve. “Livestock stomp shallow rodent tunnels in the pastures, forcing them to the surface where they’re picked off by the kestrels. Also, the cows and horses graze the grass low, allowing the kestrels to feed more easily.”
Kestrels nest in cavities but, unlike woodpeckers, don’t excavate their own cavities. Instead, they rely on old woodpecker holes and natural tree hollows. As woodlands are developed, there are fewer places for the birds to build their nests. Fortunately, they readily use man-made boxes when constructed and located properly.
“There was only one active kestrel nest around this area when I started monitoring several years ago,” said Steve. “Now, we have seven successful nest boxes and 30 young kestrels produced on Cowtown’s grazed land.”