For shorebirds like the Least Terns rooftop nesting is a survival necessity
Updated: Nov 2, 2022
By Staci-lee Sherwood
These days being an endangered species no longer has the same cache or carries the same legal protection it used to. While in some states Least Terns are listed as endangered in other states they’re listed as threatened. One thing is clear their future is in peril. As a species dependent on how well humans protect their nesting habitat things look pretty uncertain.
Plastic pollution, beach trash and coastal development have all but obliterated their once pristine habitat. As beaches become chewed up by buildings that now replace dunes and boats clog the waterways least terns are left with no place to go. Add all the human beachgoers with their paraphernalia and what used to be prime nesting and foraging real estate for the smallest of the tern family is now uninhabitable.
Over the summer I had the pleasure of observing and documenting a large colony nesting in Pompano Beach, Florida for the first time. What made this so rare is the sad fact that in Florida more than 80% of least terns now nest on gravel rooftops. Since their first appearance on earth this species, along with several other shorebird species, nested and raised their young in colonies all over the globe. When researchers discovered a fossil in South Korea it indicated that prehistoric shorebirds were around during the Cretaceous period ( between 66 – 140 million years ago ). How tragic that for millions of years little had changed their nesting behavior until very recently.
In Florida we have six species of shorebirds and seabirds that nest both on coastal beaches and tar-and-gravel rooftops: Least Tern, Black Skimmer, Roseate Tern, American Oystercatcher, Gull-billed Tern and the Killdeer. Least Terns are the most common rooftop nesters. However despite having state and federal protection nesting on a rooftop is still dependent on permission from the building owner. This leaves the shorebirds with little wiggle room should a property owner not want them there.
Sometimes things can get sketchy when their presence upsets the property owner who then takes action to remove them or makes it impossible for them to nest. Nesting birds on a roof cause no real damage except for a little bird poop which they would have some of that anyway. On occasion things have been so contentious the safety of the nesting birds had been in question though for the most part property owners are happy to help and comply. In Harrison County, Mississippi they have the most nesting least terns than anywhere else in the world. This area is considered a nationally recognized model of conservation and a globally important bird area. You can see that from their sign they take it seriously.
A Least Tern patiently sits on an egg in her natural habitat
Shorebirds don’t ‘make’ a nest they make scrapes in the sand, small divots, where 2-4 eggs are laid and the chicks stay the first 2 days of their lives.
A clean source of water with plenty of fish is vital. Here a 3 day old chick tries to eat breakfast almost as big as she is.
Coastal development brings beach rakers and atv’s. A wandering chick, especially flightless, can easily get run over. Curious but not always thoughtful photographers flock to these colonies in the hopes of getting that oh so adorable photograph of a chick. Many times they’ll spend hours on the beach just a few feet away from an active colony. This causes undue stress to the parents who have enough to worry about between fending off predators and finding enough food for their young.
In some cases people have gotten so close the parents were spooked and abandoned their eggs or young. This type of harassment has become more prevalent over the years and can have negative and lasting effects on a colony. In some instances the harassment had been so bad colonies no longer nest in a particular area. In more extreme cases people have deliberately walked through the roped off area ignoring the warning sign, dumped trash and even set off fireworks. Several pictures have gone viral online showing a parent feeding cigarette butts or micro plastic to their starving chicks. All of this could and should have been prevented but we don’t really live in a world where we humans consider the struggles of other species or how our callous actions and cruelty can cause extinction.
These are not suppose to be on the beach where nesting shorebirds are but laws are not always enforced. You can see how close they are to the pink roped off area of the colony that had several young chicks.
Rooftop nesting without any guards put in place can be a death sentence. Eggs can roll right off the edge and flightless chicks can tumble to the ground. Many times this spells disaster and not just for a pair but for the colony. As any parent of a toddler knows keeping the kids close by and safe is a 24/7 job. Success is not always a guarantee and the chicks have no idea how dangerous the rooftop edge can be nor can the parents do anything to prevent a fall. This means the property owner with nesting shorebirds needs to work with bird stewards to put safety measures in place.
Usually something simple like clear wire netting that wraps around the perimeter of the roof is enough to deter the chicks. In the event that isn’t possible bird stewards visit rooftop colonies, with permission, often and with a device called a ‘chick-a-boom’. These can be lifesavers when chicks fall off but are not fatally injured or dead. They can be placed up in a basket or carton and lifted from the ground up to the roof. Some of these devices have a trap door like feature where the chick slides out onto the roof. Other devices are more like a basket where a steward on the roof then picks up the chick and places them back in the nest of close to it.
Nesting on the roof can provide a panoramic view for the adults wanting to keep a watch out for predators but without a chick guard can also be deadly
Next time you’re out on the beach please be mindful not to throw your trash anywhere but a closed and secure trash bin. Pick up any trash you find along the way especially plastic and cigarette butts. When visiting an active colony keep your distance and don’t stay too long. Remember if things were reversed you wouldn’t want strangers staring at you or your kids all day either. Enjoy watching them and help keep their home as free of trash as you would like to keep yours.
A chick-a-boom using a juice carton
This chick got a special ride up to the roof in a basket
Nesting season begins as this roof gets wrapped with netting
If you would like to help save our shorebirds click on the link below to learn how/where you can volunteer or assist with rooftop nesters
If you think you have an active rooftop colony of nesting shorebirds please contact the Audubon Florida Rooftop Coordinator in your area immediately by email (contacts below) or contact us at FLConservation@audubon.org. and
Also published on Emagazine on November 11, 2021
Also published on The good men project on December 14, 2021