Red Bank Catholic student project keeps NJ’s birds safe

By Christina Leslie | Trenton Monitor Staff Writer

Thanks to the ingenuity of a science teacher and a group of students from Red Bank Catholic High School, a recent innovation is ensuring that the sight and song of another generation of birds is gracing the skies above central New Jersey.

The Catholic high school has been partnering with the Monmouth County Park System since 1993 in an attempt to maintain the nest box trail at Dorbrook Park, a 535-acre recreational area in Colts Neck. The trail facilitates the breeding of three native species: the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis), the tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) and the house wren (Troglodytes aedon.)

“A professor from Kean University noticed bluebirds were no longer nesting in that part of Monmouth County,” said Mary Jane Davis, an RBC science teacher. “He wrote to all 15 area high schools for help, and RBC was the only one who responded.”

For more than two decades, students from Davis’ classes and other volunteers have been mounting, cleaning and maintaining the birdhouses and keeping a tally of the eggs laid and fledglings which hatched. In 2002, RBC began entering the data into the NestWatch database hosted by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, N.Y.

At first the birdhouses, assembled by prisoners from a southern N.J. prison, were flimsy and constructed of scrap wood. In 2012, Davis enlisted the RBC engineering students to put their skills to work for the birds’ survival. “Our students made [the houses] of cedar, and they were much sturdier,” she said.

Davis enters data for 39 houses during the summer months, with the students taking up the task in the fall. They are assisted by fellow RBC science teacher, Jessica Nicoletti. Davis visits the area each Sunday to check on the birds’ progress, she stated in a recent interview with The Monitor, as an Audubon clock in her office chimed, or rather, chirped, the hour.

“The rule of thumb, before climate change, was that the bluebirds returned to this area by about March 15,” Davis revealed. “Lately, they seem to be coming back earlier.”

Despite the budding ornithologists’ efforts, in 2015, then-RBC seniors, Isabel Linde and Brenda Cabrera, analyzed data from the previous breeding season to find disheartening news. The 17 nests the engineering students had constructed had had a zero success rate;  that is, the eggs or young birds spotted earlier in the season had disappeared, most likely due to predators, such as raccoons, raiding the nests.

Current Red Bank seniors, Sara Benjamin and Miranda Liu, began research on predator guards, known as baffles, for the birdhouses and RBC’s engineering classes constructed devices which left the birdhouses’ entry holes deep enough to prevent raccoons from reaching in to steal the eggs.

The students braved the cold weather this past February during their annual trail and nest maintenance visit to the park to install the baffles, then eagerly awaited the results.

Liu recalled, “It was important to cooperate with the engineering group to help the birds. They are so vulnerable.”

Benjamin added, “It was cool to see the guards our classmates made, and that we can work together on this project. It is important to help the bluebird population in New Jersey, because we want them around as long as possible.”

Davis reported the rainy weather made frequent checking of the birds’ progress impractical, but during a recent visit to Dorbrook Park, she saw slow but steady progress in the bird vs. raccoon struggle.

Davis noted the different stages of birds’ nests being formed in boxes including that of bluebirds, swallows and house wren nests, and was particuarly pleased that the nests had appeared to  be undisturbed by any predators.

“There was a lot of activity on the trail yesterday. I suspect there was a learning curve with the raccoon baffles that delayed the nest building schedule.”

12918aAvian Friends • Diana Baldo, left, and Samantha Duffy joined the group of Red Bank Catholic High School student volunteers who cleaned birdhouses and installed predator baffles during a Feb. 27 visit to Dorbrook Park, Colts Neck. Photos courtesy of Mary Jane Davis.

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