Finding a Nest
College of Natural Resources Student Analyzes Nesting Site Preference of American Kestrels
Zachary Sanchez loves the outdoors. On weekends, he can be found camping, backpacking, hiking and snowboarding. But his pursuit of a career in Idaho’s wildlands started with a television program.
“I really got interested in natural resources while watching the Idaho Public Television program ‘Outdoor Idaho,’” said Sanchez, who earned an associate degree from the College of Western Idaho before transferring to University of Idaho in 2016.
The 33-year-old from Boise now conducts raptor research on the American kestrel.
The size of a mourning dove, American kestrels are tawny- brown with black slash markings down the face and body. The smallest falcon in North America, the kestrel preys on a variety of species including insects, small birds, reptiles and mammals. Many of their prey, particularly rodents, are deemed “pests” by humans.
Through his research, Sanchez is studying how vegetation near kestrel nesting boxes influences the birds’ preference of nest location. He hopes to use his data to place the boxes in more kestrel-friendly areas.
According to Sanchez, an ecology and conservation biology major with a minor in wildlife resources, an ecosystem service is one that is provided for free by nature.
“The kestrel acts as a natural pest control to keep problematic species populations under control,” he said.
Despite acting as an ecosystem service, the population of the American kestrel has declined by nearly 50% over the past half century according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“Some populations have recovered or stabilized while others are still dropping, and scientists aren’t sure why,” Sanchez said.
Many hypotheses have been proposed, he said, from climate change to variations in disease, to herbicide and pesticide use and habitat loss or degradation.
The senior has been working with College of Natural Resources Professor Kerri Vierling and Hawkwatch International Senior Scientist Dave Oleyar to conserve kestrel populations. The team predicts kestrels are less likely to nest in areas with a dense ground cover, which limits their ability to detect prey and predators.
The main components of Sanchez’s project include nest site selection, number of eggs laid, success of birds reaching full maturity and how factors such as landscape and vegetation can influence these variables.
There are currently 35 nesting boxes located on U of I property. Sanchez spent the summer of 2019 checking these boxes and recording information about the inhabitants every seven to 14 days. He collected data on the habitat and vegetation surrounding each box, including box orientation and height, which he is combining with data from a geographic information system, or GIS, analysis to determine how vegetation influences nest site selection.
I really got interested in natural resources while watching the Idaho Public Television program ‘Outdoor Idaho’.
ECOLOGY AND CONSERVATION BIOLOGY STUDENT
“It’s all for the birds,” Sanchez said. “This project opens the door for further research and gives the opportunity for people to collaborate and come together with other ideas to further research directed toward kestrel conservation.”
After graduating in spring 2020, Sanchez plans to attend graduate school at the U of I and continue his research on American kestrels.
Article by Sarah Smith, a senior from Middleton, who is studying crop science and horticulture.
Photos by Skyler Martin, a junior from Moscow, who is studying broadcasting and digital media. Additional photo provided by Zachary Sanchez.
Zachary Sanchez is an OUR Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship recipient.
Published in March 2020.