Local landfill has monitored one small bird of prey for 20 years
Wildlife Diversity Biologist Richard Fritsky held up a small bird of prey at Alliance Landfill on Tuesday, June 6.
“This is the American kestrel, the smallest raptor in North America, in the falcon family, said Fritsky, a biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
The around 20-day old kestrel still had soft down feathers covering her brown and black flight feathers.
Fritsky was at the landfill on Tuesday to help band five baby birds that were born in one of three bird boxes at Alliance.
The landfill, owned by Waste Management, works with Hawk Mountain Global Raptor Conservation and the American Kestrel Partnership to study the raptors. Their population is in decline and banding helps keep track of them. Lauren Maxwell, a wildlife health technician from the University of Pennsylvania, also took blood from the birds on Tuesday for a study with Hawk Mountain. They’re researching the impact of pesticides and other chemicals on the birds.
Just after 9 a.m. Fritsky and a team from Alliance and the U.S. Department of Agriculture headed about a quarter mile into a wooded area near the entrance of the landfill to find the birds. Fritsky climbed about 10 feet up a tall ladder to the wooden box with a small hole. He unscrewed the bottom and lifted up a small hatch. The wind picked up sawdust and feathers from the nest.
Alliance begins checking the bird boxes in mid-May. If they find eggs or hatchlings, they come back weekly, said Adrienne Fors, community relations specialist from Waste Management.
"This time when we first checked the box, there were little baby hatchlings and they were white," she said. "So we knew that they were probably about five to seven days old."
As Fritsky took the birds out of the box, the mother bird flew over head, yelling.
Fritsky put the five baby birds in plastic cat litter containers with breathing holes drilled in the lid. Back near the entrance, he took them out of the containers one by one. Some had fallen back asleep.
The birds are young and not that strong. A female baby tried to defend herself by calling for mom.
The baby birds can’t fly yet. She had her brown wings spread as Fritsky held her legs with two fingers.
"It's trying to appear very large," he said.
Male kestrels have blue on their wings and the top of their heads. The females are mostly all brown.
It was time for the banding. He carefully folded in the bird's wings and flipped her on her back. Fritsky then laid the bird inside a PVC pipe covered at the top with a white bag.
“What we're trying to do here is just make it a nice, quiet, dark environment where it feels safe," he said.
He clasped a small metal band around the kestrel’s leg. Fritsky tightened the band but made sure it wasn’t too tight or too loose. If the band is too big, nasty material could build up inside and cause an infection, he said. If the band is too tight, it can get off circulation in the bird’s leg.
Next, he placed the bird in the white bag to find out her weight.
“She weighs about a third of a pound,” he said.
Fritsky pulled out a laminated card with different pictures of the kestrels and estimated the bird’s age to be 20 days old.
The prime driver for the decline of kestrel populations is the loss of habitat, said Fritsky. They live in grassland habitats because that's where they find their prey like grasshoppers, dragonflies and small mammals.
Grasslands are flat and attractive for development, he said.
Alliance Landfill is operated by Waste Management, which has landfills across the U.S. and in Canada. The Lackawanna County location has operated since the mid-1980s, says John Hambrose, communications manager.
Conservation efforts are one of the pillars of Waste Management, he said. Alliance received a gold certification in 2020 from the Wildlife Habitat Council for its efforts to help wildlife.
Alliance has about 20 nest structures on its property, he said. Boxes are occupied by bats, bluebirds, tree swallows and house wrens. There are also two duck nest structures in the on-site ponds used by mallards. When a portion of the property was capped, Alliance planted native trees. Birds built nests in the trees and even a fox den popped up in the area, Hambrose said.
"We have these large properties like this, where we have 770 acres here in Taylor and Ransom and Old Forge, we've got some space where we can do some interesting and beneficial things for the wildlife in our area," he said.