Saratoga teams up with Audubon Society to give new homes to songbirds

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The tweets and chirps of songbirds were once the morning soundtrack for generations of Santa Clara County residents. Starting in the 1970s, though, people began to notice fewer birds outside their windows while sipping their morning coffee.

Native songbirds are cavity dwellers that build nests in dead and dying trees. With the increase in development around the county, many of those trees have been removed to provide space for new homes or to protect property from damage.

So, people started looking into ways to replenish the songbird populations, and the answer they found was in nest boxes. The man-made boxes simulate the cavities songbirds live in during the February through July nesting season.

The city of Saratoga is partnering with the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society to create a nesting box program. In January, volunteers will start training with the Audubon Society in preparation for placing boxes in open spaces around Saratoga.

Some boxes will hang from trees because chickadees prefer more secluded areas, while other boxes will stand on posts in open fields because bluebirds scavenge in low grass.

The nesting boxes, made of recycled wood, are being donated along with other supplies, according to Audubon Society officials. In addition to seeking city-resident volunteers, Saratoga’s Parks and Recreation Commission has asked the city Youth Commission to recruit a team of volunteers to build, place and monitor the boxes, and to record the number of birds in each box and the condition they are in.

“That would really be a neat thing to do, to get a generation of young adults trained on how to take care of the nesting facilities,” said Parks and Recreation Commission Chairman Mark Johnson. “If you learn that at a young age, you could potentially take that with you as you grow older and you have your own property, and perhaps you get involved in other civic things.”

After more than a year of planning, Johnson hopes to have the boxes in place by February, in time for the start of nesting season.

Saratoga residents are constructing nestboxes to simulate the cavities in dying trees where songbirds make their homes. (Photo: Whitney Mountain)

“A couple of months ago we had to cut down a couple of multi-hundred-year-old oak trees because they were getting dangerous and rotted out in the center,” Johnson said. Those trees, he said, served as nesting areas for native songbirds. When he heard about struggling bluebirds, he worked with the Parks and Recreation Commission to begin the city’s nest-box program.

“I was just looking for some opportunities for us to kind of help them out, enhance our parks, add a little bit of an educational component for the community, and also just help out the bird population,” he said.

The size and shape of these boxes vary depending on the birds that are supposed to use them. For songbirds, the boxes are the size of a shoebox with a hole about an inch and a half wide. For barn owls, they are the size of a small dog house with a 6- to 8-inch opening to accommodate the larger birds.

But, much of the population replenishment efforts are focused on smaller birds such as the Western Bluebird.

“The bluebird is kind of the flagship bird,” said Mike Azevedo, the nest box coordinator for the California Bluebird recovery program, as well as for the Santa Clara Valley Cavity Nester Recovery Program. “It’s the prettiest, it’s the one that’s very showy, it’s easy to identify; they were a bird that was actually missed, and that’s why the bluebird is the bird that really started the program off.”

Not only are bluebirds showy but also easier to access when trying to repopulate the region, according to Toby Goldberg, programs coordinator for the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society.

“The focus is somewhat biased toward the smaller song species,” she said. “Simply because they’re a little bit more visible, it’s easier for people to connect with them, and also because their populations should be larger. There should be hundreds of chickadees in a neighborhood; there should be hundreds of bluebirds in meadows, and so, when you stop seeing that, you know that there’s a problem.”

The Audubon Society faces a number of challenges in restoring bird populations. The removal of dead or dying trees, the presence of snakes and the invasion of non-native bird species pose a threat to the songbirds in the region.

The English Sparrow, according to Azevedo, is an invasive, aggressive, non-native species that has been negatively affecting native bird populations. This sparrow is known to physically remove other birds from their dwellings and reproduces more rapidly than other birds in the area, leading to more attacks.

Despite these challenges, the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society reported 1,845 fledgling chicks, spanning 17 species, this year. That’s slightly less than last year’s 2,398, which topped the data charts since the program began. The good news, according to Goldberg, is underscored by the fact that only half of the area’s nest boxes were surveyed and reported.

Hoping to see even more fledglings in the years to come, the City of Saratoga is underway with its nest-box program. The Audubon Society plans to hold an orientation and training session on Jan. 22 from 1 to 4 p.m. to guide the city’s volunteers through the process of caring for the boxes.

After the training is done, the group will place the boxes in several open-space areas around the city. Volunteers will monitor them weekly.

“In urban areas, if you’re going to have bluebirds,” Azevedo said, “then they will need our help.”

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