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Least Tern Chick Stretching Wings Sized

In Florida, several species of beach-nesting birds regularly nest on gravel rooftops, including Least Terns, Roseate Terns, Black Skimmers, and American Oystercatchers. In fact, in a 1998-2000 survey by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), rooftops supported 75% of Least Tern colonies in the state, and 83% of total nests (Goreet al. 2007). In other words, Least Terns are using rooftops more than the beaches for nesting. This trend continues a decade later, with more than half of the state’s nesting pairs (3156 pairs) colonizing rooftop sites (Zambranoand Warraich 2010).

From the birds’ perspective, there are some distinct advantages to rooftop nesting. Birds nesting on rooftops generally experience fewer disturbances than those nesting on popular beaches.  The birds are also safer from some types of predators such as dogs, coyotes,and ghost crabs. However, nesting on rooftops is not without risk. Rooftop nests can still be predated by gulls and crows. Rooftops without parapets(raised edges) and drain covers can be dangerous for flightless chicks, as they can fall off the roof or down the drain. Also, because rooftops are not typically managed like public lands, rooftop nests can be more difficult to proactively protect from activities such as roof repairs that can unintentionally disrupt an entire colony.

Least TernoneggRooftop nests also have their unique management problems. Building owners and homeowners are not always happy with  shorebird colonies nesting on their roof. A common complaint is that the birds defecate on the property.  Also, when seabirds bring fish back to the roof to feed their young, the smell can often be overwhelming. As these birds are protected by federal and state laws, disturbing their nests is illegal even on private property, which can be a sore point for property owners.

To address these issues and ensure a successful nesting season for rooftop-nesting birds, it takes a special type of environmental outreach. Here is where rooftop stewards and chick-checkers come in. Stewards reach out to the property owner or manager to explain what the birds are doing, their nesting timeline, and applicable laws. For commercial properties such as stores or hotels, stewards can give out educational signs and posters to post in the windows (see Rooftop Resources below). The stewards answer property owners’ questions and let them know who they can call for additional information (usually their local FWC contact).

Where the property owner is amenable, a rooftop where birds nest year after year can be “baby-proofed” before nesting begins in the spring. Installing fencing around low-edge rooftops and covering drain pipes with screens can help prevent chicks from falling off the roof. When baby-proofing is not possible or nesting has already begun, volunteers should check the sites frequently once chicks start falling off (this is called chick-checking). Chick-checkers examine fallen chicks for injury and return any unharmed chicks to the roof. If the roof cannot be accessed through a hatch or door, chicks can be returned to the roof using boxes mounted on telescoping poles, known as “chick-a-booms.” If any of the chicks are injured, chick-checkers make sure that they get to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Full instructions on chick-checking are provided in the Chick-Checking Manual (see Rooftop Resources).

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Chick-a-boom images provided by Suncoast Shorebird Partnership

Because rooftops support so many of Florida’s shorebirds, we cannot afford to ignore them. If you live or work near a rooftop-nesting site, please consider volunteering as a local rooftop steward or chick-checker. The birds depend on you!

For more information about rooftop-nesting birds, contact shorebird@myfwc.com

Wildlife Alert Hotline:

Report disturbance to nesting birds (on beaches or rooftops) by calling: 888-404-FWCC. For technical assistance on how to safely conduct emergency repairs on rooftops with active nesting, please call your regional FWC office.


- OUTREACH: See Rooftop Resources for rooftop outreach materials and instructions.

- MONITORING: See our list of historic rooftop sites here. You can also search for rooftop sites, report new sites, and contribute monitoring data in the Florida Shorebird Database. There is a rooftop monitoring section in the Breeding Bird Protocol, found on the FSD website.

- BANDING: Report banded Least Terns and learn more about the rooftop banding program.

- VIDEOS: “Chick flicks” - St. Petersburg Audubon Society features online clips of rooftop nesting birds on their website.

Letechick June21 2011 LM

Least tern and chick postcard for homeowners (Photo by Lorraine Margeson)


Reports and Publications:

•       Ackerman, B., M. Abrams, and B. Zias.  Least Tern Conservation Project: No Place to Tern.

•       Coburn, L. M., D. T. Cobb, and J. A. Gore. 2001. Management opportunities and techniques for roof- and ground-nesting Black Skimmers. Wilson Society Bulletin 29:342–348.

•       DeVries, E. A., and E. A. Forys. 2004 Loss of tar and gravel rooftops in Pinellas County, Florida and potential effects on Least Tern populations. Florida Field Naturalist 32(1):1-6.

•       Gore, J.A., J.A. Hovis, G.L. Sprandel, and N.J. Douglass. 2007.Distribution and abundance of breeding seabirds along the coast of Florida,1998-2000. Final Performance Report. FL Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, Tallahassee.

•       O’Meara and Gore. 1988. Guidelines for conservation and management of Least Tern colonies in Florida.

•       Zambrano, R., and T. N. Warraich. 2010. Statewide Seabird and Shorebird Rooftop Nesting Survey in Florida.  Final Performance Report. FL Fish &Wildlife Conservation Commission, Tallahassee.

•       Zambrano, R., M. S. Robson, D. Y. Charnetzky, and H. T. Smith. 1997. Distribution and status of Least Tern nesting colonies in southeast Florida.Florida Field Naturalist 25:85–116.

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