Snake-Proof Nests Lead To Guam Native Bird 'Baby Boom'

Project attempts to protect young birds from invasive brown tree snake

By Andrew Roberto

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (The Guam Daily Post, May 31, 2017) – A project that provides snake-resistant nest boxes has led to a “baby boom” for the rare Micronesian starlings at Andersen Air Force Base, according to the military in a press release.

The Micronesian starling is one of two remaining native forest bird species on the island, the military release stated.

Guam’s native bird population has been decimated by brown tree snakes.

Researchers from Colorado State University and the Naval Facilities Engineering Command teamed up for the Micronesian Starling Nest Box Project.

Earlier this month, researchers were able to identify 206 starling chicks developed enough to fly from their nests.

“We believe we have made a huge step in growing birds,” said Julie Savidge, professor at the CSU Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation.

As part of the project, scientists have spent the last two years installing specially designed nest boxes on utility poles around the air force base. Metal stovepipe cylinders and inverted PVC cones were placed around utility poles to deter snake activity.

Before the arrival of the brown tree snake, starlings were a common sight around Guam, and were one of 12 native species that populated the island’s forests, according to the military.

‘The success of this project’

While the number of Micronesian starlings in Guam before the nest box program is not known, it is thought to have been fewer than 500, according to Savidge. The starling population prior to the introduction of the brown tree snake is also not known, but was described in historical accounts as common to abundant.

“I am really happy with the success of this project,” said Shermaine Garcia, natural resources specialist in the Air Force’s 36th Wing Civil Engineer Squadron environmental division. “I believe the research being done with starlings will contribute greatly to the development of future bird conservation strategies and forest enhancements plans.”

The success of the program could have positive effects on not only starling population numbers, but also the island’s forests.

“We learned in Saipan that Micronesian starlings are one of the very best fruit dispersers of native forest tree species,” Savidge said. “They eat a variety of fruits and they disperse them pretty far. They’re dispersing them into degraded forests too, which could help restore forests.”

Seventy-two nest boxes have been placed around Andersen. Aside from increasing the number of starlings, the nest boxes may also help to bring back the Micronesian kingfisher, a species that was completely wiped out in Guam due to the brown tree snake.

“Because starlings and kingfishers both nest in cavities, there is hope that success with starlings can also benefit the return of kingfishers,” said Jim Watkins, conservation program supervisor of the 36th Civil Engineer Squadron’s environmental division.

Research ongoing

In the coming months, researchers will continue to monitor birds that have successfully flown the coop.

A number of starlings have been tagged on the leg with specially colored bands. Researchers hope to determine how well birds grown in nest boxes survive away from protection, and whether they return to nest boxes. There are also plans to attach transmitters to some birds to track real-time location and habits.

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