In Florida, several species of shorebirds and seabirds regularly nest on gravel rooftops, including least terns, roseate terns, black skimmers, and American oystercatchers. In fact, in a 1998-2000 survey, rooftops supported 75% of least tern colonies in the state, and 83% of total nests. In other words, least terns used rooftops more than the beaches for nesting. This trend continues a decade later, with more than half of the state’s nesting pairs colonizing rooftop sites.
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. Additionally, rooftops without raised edges and drain covers can be dangerous for flightless chicks, as they can fall off the roof or down the drain. 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.
Rooftop nests also have unique management challenges. Building owners and homeowners are not always happy with shorebird colonies nesting on their roof. A common concern is that the birds defecate on the property. Also, when seabirds bring fish back to the roof to feed their young, the smell can be unpleasant. Since 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 ensure a successful nesting season for rooftop-nesting birds, a dedicated group of volunteers conduct a variety of activities. These volunteers are affectionately known as Rooftop Stewards. Rooftop Stewards perform three important tasks:
- Adopt a rooftop and visit the site weekly to count the number of adult birds flying over the property.
- Where the property owner is amenable, a rooftop where birds nest year after year can be “chick-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 chick-proofing is not possible, or nesting has already begun, Rooftop Stewards 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” or “chick lifts”. If any of the chicks are injured, chick-checkers make sure that they get to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
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 monitor or chick-checker. The birds depend on us!
Learn more about rooftop-nesting birds and contact us to get involved:
Photo Credit: Bonnie Samuelsen
Audobon Florida Photo Credit: Bonnie Samuelsen
FWC Rooftop Monitoring Photo Credit: Jack Rogers