Volunteers help fledge thousands of birds at state parks

Brian Whipkey
Pennsylvania Outdoors Columnist

Volunteers are working across the state to make sure birds have adequate nesting opportunities.

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources reported 58 state parks monitored 2,600 bird boxes and fledged a total of 8,964 birds, including eastern bluebirds, purple martins, tree swallows, wood ducks, and several other species in 2021.

Since the Cavity Nesting Program’s beginning in 1980, volunteers have fledged — or helped raise until they grow feathers — more than 155,000 individual birds that include at least 19 species, according to a 2021 report on the initiative.

Michael Shaffer, envrionmental education specialist at Moraine State Park, left, talks with Russ Cawthorne, CEO Specialty Outdoors March 14, 2022, about duck boxes. Cawthorne has fined tuned the design of bird boxes over the past six years.

One of the 58 parks heavily involved in the program is Moraine State Park in Butler County.

Volunteers monitor 258 boxes for wood ducks, mallards, tree swallows, American Kestrels, purple martins and bluebirds.

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Michael Shaffer, environmental education specialist at Moraine and McConnells Mill state parks, said they count on many volunteers to help make sure the boxes are in good condition for the birds to nest around Lake Arthur.

The 3,225-acre lake in Moraine provides plenty of habitat along the edges for birds to live.

Shaffer said the cavity nesting program serves to help birds find suitable places to lay their eggs.

Greater Scaup, more commonly called bluebill, ducks swim on Lake Arthur March 14, 2022, in Butler County. Volunteers build and monitor duck boxes around the waterway in Moraine State Park.

“They’re losing where they nest,” he said about an ongoing problem with a loss of natural habitat for birds across the country.

The volunteers

The Boy Scout Troop from Ellwood City and numerous volunteers take time to monitor the eggs and build the boxes themselves. “We have hundreds and hundreds of volunteers. What these volunteers do is unbelievable,” Shaffer said about the statewide volunteers who check on the nests and count the eggs and the fledglings each year.  

Russ Cawthorne, CEO of Specialty Outdoors in Butler, has been helping to maintain, build and replace the boxes for about six years. Cawthorne and his wife, Donna, were canoeing in the park when they noticed the poor conditions of some of the boxes that were probably 50 years old. They decided they should help. The boxes were originally made out of a variety of materials, including some that were made from ammo boxes.

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Cawthorne said his son Vic, and friends Don Weaver, Greg McBride and Jon Aglio have helped him to retrieve boxes, recondition them and put them back. They also made additional boxes. “Right now there about 150 wood duck boxes,” he said.

“Nesting will occur any time between now and April. The boxes need to be ready to go,” Cawthorne said about the group’s earlier efforts to have the boxes out for the birds to find. People will be checking on a variety of boxes between June and February. In the summer months, they are checking for eggs, membranes and fledglings for the park’s annual report.

The duck eggs take about 30 days to hatch. The day after they hatch, the fledglings walk out of the box and start living around the lake.

“They’re pretty amazing,” Shaffer said about some of their natural nesting drops being fairly high off the ground.  The man-made boxes aren’t that high as they are placed at a height that’s easy for volunteers to access and maintain. The ducklings will be able to fly in about 100 days.

The boxes

Cawthorne has worked to improved the design of wood boxes to make them “easy to maintain and functional.”

His designs don’t need hinges and they are easy to open and check.  They have a removable bottom for the box and it includes a small piece of asphalt shingle to resemble gravel. He also has added metal screen-like material that serves as a ladder for birds to walk out of the box.

The posts are covered with slippery plastic PVC piping to prevent predators from climbing into the boxes.

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Cawthorne said the duck boxes angle toward the water for several reasons. One is to keep the rain out as well as help the ducklings have a place to walk out of the box. 

“They absolutely love the outdoors and they absolutely love their birds,”  Shaffer said about the volunteers who look after the varying bird species at the parks. “We fledge hundreds, hundreds and hundreds of birds out of their boxes each and every year.”

Brian Whipkey is the outdoors columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at bwhipkey@gannett.com and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter emailon your website's homepage under your login name. Follow him on social media @whipkeyoutdoors.