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Falcons taking signs as homes

Kestrels finding their billboard nest boxes eggs-tra nice

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PLEASANT GROVE — Birds of a feather now have a friend who's giving them a place to live.

Pleasant Grove's Kirk Johnson builds nest boxes for the American kestrels — North America's smallest falcon, commonly known as the sparrowhawk — which he then bolts to the frame of billboards owned by his employer, Young Electric Sign Co.

In doing so, he's providing new homes for the cavity-nesting birds that have lost access to much of their natural habitat. And, he's saving signs at the same time.

"We get a double bonus because we have problems with starlings and pigeons roosting on the signs," Johnson said.

"The nest boxes help because the falcons come in and chase them away," he said. "They're small but they're aggressive."

Johnson started his project a year ago with 16 nest boxes in the YESCO billboards along the roads in Utah County and Nephi. He's added two more this year.

The small wooden nest boxes are almost immediately occupied — as if word travels by chirp-of-beak.

"We've got one at our shop that's being used. And we have one at our home."

The occupancy rate for the boxes is currently at 80 percent, including a nest box tucked under the skirt on the top of the Thanksgiving Point water tower in Lehi.

That one is "rented" to a cluster of chicks.

The falcons have evicted the pesky starlings that were "whitewashing" the tower and the ground below.

"Frankly, I've been astonished," Johnson said. "It's so fun."

Nest box programs are not unique to Utah County or to Johnson. Internet sites for a number of U.S. states offer advice on how to build the type of box an American kestrel prefers.

Iowa has an Interstate Highway nest-box program.

In Arizona, cameras have been set up to record kestrel activity in the nest boxes.

Young Electric has picked up Johnson's program and published the story in its "Tricks of the Trade" magazine, which will probably spawn similar efforts.

Johnson hopes so.

"It's interesting. They'll find the nest boxes almost immediately. I think they're suffering from a loss of habitat," he said. "I started at my home about five years ago and in the first year, we had nesting falcons."

The nest boxes are tucked unobtrusively between the billboard panels and don't generally affect the operation of the signs.

However, Johnson has made all of his employees aware of the nesting birds because he doesn't want anybody to fall, startled by a protective mama bird.

All 10 recently checked nests had either chicks in them or eggs, Johnson said. One in Springville has baby kestrels ready to head out on their own.

The American kestrel eats small rodents and the parent birds share incubation duties on a nest of eggs.

"It might be a good idea to introduce them to Eagle Mountain," he said about the new town in the west desert. Residents there struggle with voles, a small rodent that causes havoc with sprinkling systems and gardens.

E-MAIL: haddoc@desnews.com