Submitted by Nongame Conservation Section wildlife biologist Phil Spivey and program manager Jim Ozier
SOCIAL CIRCLE, Ga. (Jan. 3, 2008) Try to imagine the landscape of much of Georgia 200 years ago - it was vastly different from today.
Early travelers and naturalists described scenes of extensive open forests, savannas and even rolling prairies maintained by frequent fires either ignited by lightning strikes or set by American Indians over much of the coastal plain and into parts of the piedmont. This open, grassy countryside with a low density of longleaf pines or other fire-adapted trees supported a very different range of birds than the species typically seen in most of the region today. Most likely grassland specialists including Bachmans sparrow, northern bobwhite, horned lark, bobolink, loggerhead shrike, eastern meadowlark and a handsome little falcon, the southeastern American kestrel, were all common.
Historically, the southeastern kestrel probably was evenly distributed throughout Georgia's coastal plain. It roosted and nested in hollow trees and abandoned woodpecker cavities, and preyed on lizards, mice, large insects and occasionally small birds.
In more recent times, as our native open habitat types have been lost because of conversion to agriculture, intensive silviculture, development and a lack of fire, kestrels and other grassland birds have disappeared from most of their suspected former ranges. In some instances, however, small populations have been able to persist in altered habitats, such as pastures.
Through the years, a few scattered pairs of nesting kestrels hung on in Georgia, mostly in urban areas where they made their homes in the eaves and gutters of buildings. These included migratory kestrels in the northern half of the state as well as the nonmigratory southeastern subspecies in the coastal plain. During fall and winter, influxes of migratory kestrels also have been often seen on utility lines in open agricultural areas throughout most of the state.
Recent discoveries of southeastern kestrel "concentrations" at a few locations have been encouraging to biologists interested in restoring populations of this subspecies. At Fort Gordon, near Augusta, a kestrel population has persisted by nesting in the nooks of buildings and foraging on the parade grounds and training areas. A nest box program and open-pine habitat restoration efforts are helping to increase this small population.
More recently, a couple of significant kestrel populations were discovered using hollow metal poles on wide, high-voltage transmission rights of way in southern Georgia.
With primary funding through the Nongame Conservation Section, and assistance from Georgia Power Co. and The Environmental Resources Network, recent work by Dr. John Parrish and his students at Georgia Southern University has revealed just how important these power-line rights of way are, and how they can be managed to ensure they remain suitable as kestrel nesting habitat.
Kestrel populations persisting in these artificial habitats are the largest in Georgia, and possibly even the southeast. This research has proven that adding nest boxes at these sites can be a successful management tool for maintaining nesting options as many of the original hollow transmission towers become structurally unsound and are replaced with designs that do not inherently provide such sites.
By continuing the partnership with Georgia Power, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (MEAG) and other owners and managers of wide power-line rights of way, Nongame Conservation hopes to develop and implement a conservation strategy that will ensure the presence of suitable nest sites along these lines and possibly others.
Eventually, as longleaf savannas are restored to the landscape, the hope is that kestrels and many other species of native Georgia wildlife will return to their natural habitats.
Try to imagine the landscape of much of Georgia 200 years ago - it was vastly different from today.
Early travelers and naturalists described scenes of extensive open forests, savannas and even rolling prairies maintained by frequent fires either ignited by lightning strikes or set by American Indians over much of the coastal plain and into parts of the piedmont. This open, grassy countryside with a low density of longleaf pines or other fire-adapted trees supported a very different range of birds than the species typically seen in most of the region today.