Along the Mill Creek Marsh in Secaucus and throughout the Meadowlands region, the staff from the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC) has installed hundreds of bird nesting boxes to welcome home its tree swallow population.
The tree swallows, which return to the Meadowlands every year at this time in an annual rite of spring, enjoy a lifestyle that many of their non-flying friends would clearly recognize.
The tree swallow is an approximately 5.5-inch bird with a striking metallic blue upper body and a white underbody. They are indigenous to lakeshores, streams, and marshes. Tree swallows live in the holes of dead trees that were hollowed out by other birds and animals.
A decline in natural habitats for this species, largely due to development, inspired the effort to start constructing nesting boxes for these birds.
The NJMC joined this effort 10 years ago. Gabrielle Bennett-Meany, the NJMC's outreach naturalist in the wetlands division, described how location is just as important for birds as it is with people when it comes to real estate.
"These particular nest boxes were designed to sit out over the water," she said. "Tree swallows are one of the few birds that will nest somewhat over the water. They're not going to go out deep, but they like just off the edge. They feel that much safer."
NJMC workers have lined the edge of the Meadowlands marsh shoreline with hundreds of nesting boxes. Apparently, in the same way that many Secaucus residents came to town from the more crowded parts of Hudson County seeking space, tree swallows also prefer to live someplace where they can spread their wings.
"We put the boxes a couple of feet apart, because they are a little territorial," Bennett-Meany said. "They don't want your family too close to their family."
Bennett-Meany also noted that while tree swallows exhibit a preference for single-family homes, one of their neighboring bird species, the purple martin, lives very differently.
"Purple martin houses are designed like an apartment building," she said. "It's very large, and they like living next to each other. Meanwhile, tree swallows want more exclusively waterfront property."
Tree swallows also like to live in places where their version of fine dining is readily available.
"The water's edge is the zone where a lot of the insect activity begins," she said. "That's what tree swallows mainly feed on. A family of tree swallows can consume a couple of hundred of midges [small insects] a day."
Tree swallows challenged by competition
NJMC spokesman Jeff Fucci explained why his organization helps the tree swallows with additional housing.
"Tree swallows face a lot of competition from other species and also in finding habitats," he said. "These nesting boxes are a wetlands biodiversity enhancement that give them a place to stop along the Atlantic flyway. Without them, life may be more difficult for them."
Besides the occasional predatory hawk, Bennett-Meany mentioned which factors help to make competition stiff for tree swallows when they arrive in the Meadowlands.
"Woodpeckers are primary cavity nesters after they make living holes with their beaks," she said. "Tree swallows are the secondary cavity nesters. But the following year, a squirrel, another animal, or another bird might want the hole. In this area, there has been a lot of encroachment over the last 40 years. With less and less trees available, there have been less and less habitats for the birds. But what we found was in the same way people put bird houses in their backyards to attract birds, what we call bird nesting boxes attract birds. Tree swallows readily adapt to these nest boxes, so much so that the project has grown to accepting six to eight hundred boxes from community groups that want to help."
Community backs birds
Community groups began putting up bird nest boxes throughout the Meadowlands 20 years ago under the auspices of Don Smith, the former NJMC naturalist. Smith began by putting up 24 boxes. When Bennett-Meany began helping him 15 years ago, the number was close to 100. Now that she manages the distribution of hundreds of bird nest boxes each year, Bennett-Meany described how the job gets done.
"I always leave it up to the group to decide what they can manage, because they have to fund it themselves," she said. "The groups bring back their finished boxes to me, then I figure out where to put them."
The NJMC also hosts bird nest building workshops, which encourage community involvement in the spring nest box project. These groups often engage in contests to see who can come up with the best looking non-toxic nest boxes. Groups that have built nest boxes over the years have included People to People International of Secaucus, several local Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops, and Pathways to Independence, a Hudson County group for people living with disabilities.
"When the little kids do it, their box doesn't always have a uniform look, but the birds don't care," Bennett-Meany said. "They aren't going to be as choosy as you and I are when it comes to renovation. As long as they've got a place to live, they're OK with it. It's a home."
Bennett-Meany noted that the seasonal shift makes the work being done now very important.
"The birds like to winter where we like to winter: Florida and South America," she said. "This work we are doing is a springtime activity because we are timing the migration. If we don't place the boxes out here now when it's still a little cool, we're going to miss when they start coming up from down south."
The Meadowlands has experienced an environmental revival in recent years, with over 260 bird species now calling the area home. However, Bennett-Meany admits that one species definitely has a special home in her heart.
"We love tree swallows," she said. "People come here to view them and to photograph them. They are special. People should come out and see them. You can get such awe and pleasure out of seeing that little bird. It's instant gratification. You get to watch them build a home."
Mark J. Bonamo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.