Telluride Mountain School students

Telluride Mountain School students Charlotte Guest, left, and Sabrina Goldberg discuss an initiative to place American kestrel nesting boxes on the Valley Floor at an Open Space Commission meeting on Monday. (Photo by Jessica Kutz/Telluride Daily Planet)


group of slightly nervous fifth- and sixth-grade student scientists from Telluride Mountain School (TMS) gave a presentation to Telluride’s Open Space Commission on Monday afternoon regarding an initiative to collect data about the American kestrel, a long-tailed falcon. 

The project was approved unanimously. It involves constructing, and then placing, several falcon nesting-boxes along the Valley Floor. 

The students intend to monitor the boxes. The data they glean by counting eggs and observing nesting behavior will be forwarded to the American Kestrel Partnership, an Idaho-based organization that consists of more than 600 partners who are tracking similar data, according to the group’s website, “from Alaska to Argentina.”  

The American kestrel is the smallest bird of prey in North America. Although these raptors are “historically common,” Sarah Schulwitz, director of the American Kestrel Partnership, said that they have been steadily declining since the 1960s. 

Scientists aren’t sure why. 

But student scientists, like the ones from TMS, could help solve the mystery. Using data collected from TMS and partners from around the world, “We can start to identify trends (that) we hope leads to a greater understanding of what may be causing” the falcons to disappear, Schulwitz said. 

At the meeting, several students explained the importance of the project to commission members.

“Kestrel falcons are declining rapidly, and one of the reasons we are focusing so much on trying to save them is because we know from other research projects that we can save them,” said Jula Cieciuch, a TMS student. 

Cieciuch explained that in the 1990s, another bird of prey, the peregrine falcon, was on the endangered species list. Through data collection, researchers were able to determine that the birds’ eggs were being compromised by chemicals sprayed on farmers’ crops. The discovery helped scientists to plan preservation efforts.

“We are hoping that if we do this project, we can find some research and help save the kestrels,” Cieciuch said. “We think that researching them here with these nesting boxes could be an essential part of finding out what is happening to them.”

Another student, Shai Ann Kanow, vouched for the location of the Valley Floor as prime real estate for the project.  

“The human population keeps growing and growing and that is causing a lot of animals to be pushed out of their natural habitats. The American kestrel is definitely one of those animals,” she said. “The Valley Floor was made for animals like this so that they could be healthier and safer.”

As to the boxes themselves, TMS student Booker O’Dell assured board members, “You won’t even notice them at all.” The boxes will be affixed to trees and light posts. 

Commission members remarked that the project was a good example of citizen science and approved the initiative with conditions.

Lance McDonald, program director for the Town of Telluride, asked that the students provide a monitoring schedule and template for the boxes; allow town staff to determine the ultimate locale of the boxes; and offer town officials an annual report of activities relating to the study, as well as results. He also recommended that the commission and the school reevaluate the program in three years to determine whether it should continue. 

Ben Gardner, the TMS teacher leading the project, said he was proud of the students.

“I thought they were wonderful,” he said. “There were a lot of nerves, but at the same time, these kids are so used to public speaking, and in the right environment, doing real life learning inspires students to go above and beyond.”

In an interview with the Daily Planet after the meeting, Cieciuch said that while she was anxious about making her presentation, she felt prepared. 

“I was really nervous, but I think I did better than what I thought I would do,” she said. Now, “I am really excited to meet Sarah (Schulwitz), and am also really excited to start building these boxes.”

Schulwitz will be making a presentation on the American kestrel to students at the Telluride Mountain School during the day, and to the community at the Telluride Historical Museum at 5 p.m., on Sept. 25.