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  • Shannon Carnevale

Building a Bird-Friendly Polk County: Tips for Cavity-Nester Conservation

December is the perfect time to learn about the fascinating world of our cavity-nesting birds in Central Florida. These birds, including the enchanting Eastern screech owl, play a vital role in our ecosystem at both the local and regional scale. This holiday season, consider thinking about giving a gift to our local cavity-nesting bird species!


UF/IFAS Photo by Cat Wofford (red-bellied woodpecker) Cat Wofford

UNDERSTANDING CAVITY-NESTING BIRDS IN FLORIDA


Cavity-nesting birds, such as various owl species, woodpeckers, and small songbirds, seek out natural cavities in trees or in some cases, create their own cavities for their nesting. These birds are crucial for maintaining ecological balance, acting as natural pest controllers, and contributing to biodiversity. Florida’s cavity nesters include the downy woodpecker, wood duck, Carolina wren, and Eastern screech owl, among others. The American kestrel and the red-cockaded woodpecker are two cavity nesters in Florida which are listed as federally endangered. 


Woodpeckers, Carolina chickadees, and brown-headed nuthatches are examples of what’s known as “primary” cavity-nesters which means they prefer to excavate their own cavities and will not readily take to human-supplied nestboxes. If you’d like to support these species, consider leaving a snag (another word for standing dead tree) in your yard if you have one. You can keep safety in mind by cutting off the top of the tree, if necessary, and leaving at least 12-15 ft of snag standing. 


Most of our cavity nesting species are “secondary” cavity nesters, meaning they cannot excavate their own nesting cavity and will use an abandoned one from a primary cavity nester or, if available, will use human-supplied nestboxes. 


SPECIES HIGHLIGHT: THE EASTERN SCREECH OWL


Eastern screech owl: Forest Service photo by Tanya Flores

The Eastern Screech Owl, Florida’s smallest owl, is an efficient predator, despite its diminutive size of 6-9 inches. With a large head, ear tufts, and varying colorations of red, brown, or grey, these owls are a common sight in forested areas, city parks, and residential neighborhoods. They are generalists, meaning they have a varied diet and can survive and thrive in a variety of habitats. Data suggests that suburban Eastern screech owls may have higher survival rates than their rural counterparts due to more food availability and fewer predators.


According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, their numbers have decreased annually by close to 1% for a cumulative decline of about 37% between 1966 and 2019, making them a “species in decline” in the Southeastern USA. 


Now, for the good news! Eastern screech owls readily adopt artificial habitat in the form of nestboxes and quickly become beloved family members of the residential areas in which they are found. These charismatic little owls keep watch from the nestbox’s opening and can be easily observed by neighbors, friends, and family. They tolerate the hustle and bustle of active families if we respect their boundaries and observe them from a distance. Never intentionally annoy or harass your local owls … or they may leave for other accommodations! 


THE IMPORTANCE OF ARTIFICIAL NESTING HABITATS


Habitat loss and environmental changes have made it increasingly challenging for many bird species to find safe nesting areas. Providing artificial nesting sites in the form of nestboxes is a proactive step towards supporting bird populations that may struggle to find natural nesting sites. By installing a nest box, you’re not just adding a feature to your garden; you’re actively participating in the conservation of our local avian biodiversity.


When it comes to nest boxes, one size does not fit all. Different bird species have distinct preferences for their nesting sites – from the size of the box to the diameter of the entrance and the height at which the box is placed. To truly cater to the needs of specific bird species you wish to attract, it’s crucial to follow detailed guidelines.


A fantastic resource for species-specific nest box plans and guidelines is www.NestWatch.org. This platform offers a wealth of information to help you create the perfect nesting environment for your targeted bird species. Check out the, “All About Birdhouses” and “Right Bird, Right House” sections to find free plans for constructing the perfect nestbox for your yard!


JOIN OUR NEST BOX BUILDING CLASS!


Looking for an easier way to support the Eastern Screech Owl? 


Join us for a nestbox building workshop just after the new year, in January or February. You’ll learn a bit more about Florida’s cavity nesting species and build-your-own nestbox to take home. We’ve taken all the guesswork out of it! For class dates and information, visit PolkCountyExtension.Eventbrite.com or scan the QR code provided. These workshops are provided at no cost to the participant thanks to a generous grant from the Coastal and Heartland National Estuary Program. You can learn more about them at, chnep.org


IN SUMMARY


Our cavity-nesting birds, from the silent hunters like the Eastern screech owl to the industrious woodpeckers, are integral parts of our ecosystem. By providing them with safe nesting habitats, we not only aid their conservation but also enrich our natural surroundings. Remember, your efforts in creating these artificial habitats are a step toward preserving the delicate balance of our local ecosystem.


For more information on cavity-nesting birds and how to support them, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter/X and Instagram at @PolkNR.


Happy Holidays, everyone!


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