Housing Project for the Birds
Don McCartney wasn't thinking about becoming a landlord when he retired. But things change, and now he manages more than 100 houses, rent-free, for nesting American kestrels.
By Damian Fagan, Bend, Oregon
Every spring, Don McCartney and his wife, Carol, check up on their nest boxes. Don installed them in 1998 in an attempt to revive a section of the Deschutes National Forest near Sisters, Oregon destroyed by wildfires. The devastating blaze, known as the Delicious Burn, destroyed many kestrel nesting sites, threatening their population as well as others.
Don lives nearby in Bend, and hoped his human-made kestrel nest boxes would help offset the loss of much of the birds' natural habitat.
"That first year, five young kestrels fledged from the boxes," Don says proudly.
Since then, Don has mounted more than 100 boxes throughout central Oregon.
Don loves to see his tenants lay their eggs in his units. In fact, he regularly checks his boxes for eggs and relays information to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York. The lab uses data from volunteers like Don to measure the offspring of birds that use nest boxes. Don's data, for example, shows an impressive increase from five fledglings in 1998 to 196 in 2005, a result of the additional nest boxes he installed.
Don visits his tenants only occasionally, often just to check on the number of eggs laid and count the number and sex of the young before they leave the nest. He starts checking the boxes in late April, but is wary not to hang around the boxes too much for fear of disrupting the site.
In June or July, Don and naturalist Jim Anderson tag young birds with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service band. The bands have a unique identifying number and reveal information on the birds' longevity and movement upon relocation. Sometimes, Don and Jim use the banding sessions as an opportunity to teach children about kestrels.
Every once in a while, Don has to play the strict landlord and evict a freeloading squirrel or wood rat from a nest box. Most of the time, though, the word-of-beak advertising attracts welcome guests to his boxes.
Although Don claims his postretirement kestrel efforts are "for the birds," it's clear that there's far more to it than that.