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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Two of them: Quiet little rodents in a shared cage, sipping at a water bottle and running on a brand new red exercise wheel.

Little do they know, they are bait on this early morning in July. 

They ride in the backseat of an ultra-quiet hybrid Ford Escape with me and senior Kelsey Brown. Senior Nikk Novero rides shotgun, while Environmental Studies Professor Rich Van Buskirk steers us down a rural gravel road.

Less than a mile from Pacific University’s Forest Grove Campus, we’re in the heart of Oregon farmland. Houses sit nestled in small groves of trees, separated by acres of crops. To the east are rows of berries; to the west, recently cut hay fields. The horizon is broken by small stands of old growth forest.

All of which, it appears, makes this prime habitat for the American kestrel, a once plentiful small falcon seen throughout the continent. The birds, Van Buskirk explains in a soft nature-documentary voice, are one of the smallest species of raptor, measuring about the size of a robin. A favorite of farmers, these “sparrowhawks” feed on mice and voles in the fields. But despite their popularity with human landowners, their numbers have been on the decline for several decades.

Except here, in the countryside just outside of Forest Grove.

Kestrel populations here are thriving. Bird pairs near the Pacific University campus are hatching as many as five young in a season, while in Sherwood, not 20 miles away, as the, well, kestrel flies, a good year means a brood of one or two young.

Van Buskirk and the two undergraduate research students working with him want to know why.

“What about this landscape is successful?” Van Buskirk asks. “When you work with endangered species, it’s hard to identify what’s missing, what’s caused the population collapse. If we can see what works here, we might explain the decline elsewhere.”

JUST MINUTES INTO THE DRIVE, Brown raises a pair of binoculars and announces a kestrel perched on a nearby powerline. Van Buskirk stops the car, and we stare for a few moments before Brown pulls a trap from the back.

It’s called a bal-chatri, a common means of catching falcons. But like all the equipment they use, Van Buskirk and his team have had to modify the design for the kestrels, which are much smaller than their hawk and eagle cousins. This one is a metal bicycle wheel with a cage fastened in the center. The outside of the cage is covered with fishing line nooses.

Brown opens a small hatch and sets a mouse inside. Van Buskirk creeps from the driver’s seat to lay the trap in some brush off the road.

We back up to give the bird some space, but she’s not shy. She immediately swoops down, intent on a mousy snack. On her fourth dive, she’s caught in one of the snares but quickly escapes. Surprisingly, she keeps trying.

“She’s more cautious than the first time, but she keeps coming back in,” Van Buskirk says. “These mice are just too much of a draw. They can’t resist.”

It takes a few more tries, a different trap, and a site several yards up the road, but it’s a lucky day.

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