Bob Frye: Nest boxes prove valuable
I was expecting an ear full of feathers at any moment.
We'd spent the morning paddling around Glendale Lake in Prince Gallitzin State Park, mixing in some fairly productive fishing along the way. Now, mid-afternoon, we were getting in a hike.
The trail led us to a grassy field with a row of nest boxes on metal poles. Approaching one — the trail went right past them — I wondered if any were being used.
Cue the tree swallow.
One of the birds poked its head out the circular hole in the weathered front of the box. It lingered for just a second, then took off.
It circled around us in loop after dizzyingly speedy loop. I tried to twist around to follow it but couldn't keep up.
It didn't like us being there, though. Time after time, in mid-circle, it would make a strafing run that took it just over or right by our heads. I could hear and feel it go by.
Our presence was obviously a stressor. And I didn't want to turn my face the wrong way at the wrong time and wind up with a tree swallow-shaped indent in my forehead, so we quickly moved on.
But it was good to know that that nest box was serving its purpose.
Nest boxes provide home to all manner of birds. Located correctly and maintained properly, they offer habitat that otherwise might be missing.
Lots of birds of all kinds use them, too.
Take this example.
Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources — which manages parks like Prince Gallitzin — monitors the usage of boxes on its lands via its “cavity nesting trails” program. Staff and volunteers at 44 parks kept tab on 1,737 bird boxes in 2017.
According to that work, 7,069 birds fledged.
That's up slightly from 2016. More impressively, it brings the total numbers of birds fledged since the program's inception in 1980 to more than 130,000.
Tree swallows were the most common nest box user on state parks lands. They accounted for 35 percent of fledglings, according to the department's monitoring. Bluebirds were right behind at 34 percent. House wrens were the last of the “big three,” at 17 percent.
But boxes produced young of a bunch of other species, too.
Chickadees, purple martins, wood ducks, tufted titmouses, English house sparrows, American kestrels and other birds all used boxes in various places.
State parks are always looking for volunteers, so anyone who wants to get involved in the nesting trails program probably can find somewhere close to home to do it.
Of course, you also can build and erect nest boxes on your own property. The Pennsylvania Game Commission has nest box plans of all kinds — for not just birds, but bats, mammals and more — on its website atpgc.pa.gov/InformationResources/GetInvolved/Pages/WildlifeHomePlans.aspx. They're free to download.
Building, erecting and monitoring them is a great family activity, too. Kids love to hammer away at making them, then see the fruits of their labors in the form of wildlife babies later on.
Just be sure to view everything from a distance. No one wants an ear full of feathers.