Restoring bird colonies with social attraction

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Conservation Corner: Restoring bird colonies with social attraction

By Angelika Nelson

Have you ever looked at the gourd rack near the pond on the north side of the Grange Insurance Audubon Center in mid-winter, and were you startled by that one swallow-like bird perched on top, seemingly braving the cold? A Purple Martin wintering in Ohio? You have probably been fooled, like so many of us, by the decoy bird, strategically placed to attract others (live birds), of its species to breed in the gourds. This technique is called social attraction, where researchers place a decoy to attract often rare or endangered birds to indicate to them an area suitable for breeding. It works quite well for species that usually breed in groups or colonies, like the Purple Martin, but also solitarily breeding species. Most songbirds can be attracted by conspecific playback to an area. Simulating other birds being present may indicate appropriate habitat to dispersing or migrating individuals who then settle to breed.

Decoys can have major effects on the success of conservation projects. I just recently returned from my annual teaching trip at the Audubon summer camp on Hog Island, which is a small island off the coast of Maine. When I arrived at camp this year, on top of the hill with the legendary view of the island across the narrows of Muscongous Bay, I noticed a new sign on one of the mainland buildings: Mad River Decoys by Audubon. It turns out that Steve Kress, founder of Project Puffin, has taken on yet another project of manufacturing bird decoys for conservation projects with the help of two Audubon staff members, Eric Snyder and Sue Schubel.

You have probably heard Steve’s success story of bringing back Atlantic Puffins to breed on islands off the coast of Maine. But his project was a challenge at first, how do you convince birds translocated from Canada to stay and breed in new suitable habitat? Steve had the idea of attracting birds with decoys, a method that has long been used by hunters. And it worked! He placed decoys looking like puffins on some rocks on the islands. The real puffins landed next to their “fake” counterparts, they probably recognized that these decoys were not real, but in the process they discovered suitable habitat and stayed. Once a few birds had settled others joined them and a new colony was established.

This method of social attraction is now widely used by researchers and wildlife managers to attract rare and endangered seabirds to safer nesting habitats. Sue and Eric have been shipping terns, gulls, cormorants to researchers all over the world. When I visited, they were working on some albatrosses for their next order. Eric makes the lightweight but durable polyethylene decoys from hand-carved wooden or clay molds and Sue hand-paints them with the species-typical colors. They have also developed a sound system that adds to the visual stimulation.

Learn more about the project, but if you can, visit the place yourself. From June through September you can attend a wide range of week-long summer camp programs on the island that will introduce you to the local birds of the area, including Black Guillemots and now again Atlantic Puffins.