Birdhouses expected back near canal trail

TURNERS FALLS — The future of the birdhouses removed along a stretch of the Canalside Rail Trail bike path to make way for tree removal is a little less certain than it originally seemed, but the contractor and the utility involved say the half dozen boxes will be back soon enough.

Following a recent Recorder article quoting a Cotton Tree Services employee as saying the birdhouses were slated to be replaced, a concerned path-user called up to say he had heard from another employee that the contract did not include restoration of the birdhouses frequented by bluebirds and tree swallows.

David Cotton, owner of Cotton Tree Service of Northampton, said he has saved the wooden boxes and expects to return them to the land at the verge of the bike path.

“Little things like that, that’s incidental,” Cotton said. “The job was a fairly major project so something like putting the birdhouses back up would be incidental and that’s something we’d do as a courtesy to them if they asked us.”

Last week, Cotton said he was waiting on a final plan from the utility and expected to replace the boxes once the weather warms.

Cotton said most of the half-dozen or so boxes were originally mounted to trees, some on poles, and all will now be pole-mounted.

FirstLight Power Resources commissioned the removal of 215 trees in a depression along the bike path near the Depot Street entrance at the order of a Federal Energy Regulation Commission inspector, according to FirstLight spokesman Charles Burnham.

Burnham said he had fielded several calls from concerned citizens regarding the absent bird houses and said the six boxes will be returned, although some were rotting and will have to be replaced.

Montague Selectman and local birder Mark Fairbrother couldn’t speak specifically to the residents of the bird boxes, saying the canal area is popular with bird watchers, but primarily for waterfowl and primarily along Migratory Way, on the opposite bank.

The users of the boxes would depend on their dimensions, with smaller bird boxes in the area generally used by bluebirds and tree swallows locally and larger ones by wood ducks, American kestrels or hooded mergansers, according to Fairbrother.

Bird boxes can be vital for different species and at different times.

“Depending on the species, some of them really need the housing assistance.Purple martins for example, which now nest in Massachusetts only along the coast in places, they very definitely are very much connected with human influence,” Fairbrother said.

Fairbrother said he remembers a time in the 1970s when the energy crisis created human demand for the dead trees bluebirds inhabited, and believes birdhouses were fairly critical in keeping the birds going.

“Tree swallows and bluebirds, they were much diminished birds and I think it’s thanks in large part to local programs putting up more boxes for them that they’re doing a lot better now than they were,” said Matthew Kamm, bird conservation assistant with Mass Audubon.

When or by what influence the bird boxes appeared by the canal is unclear.

“Leaving aside the aesthetic values ... they’re both insect eaters so they’re both beneficial to some extent, but I think as with a lot of things in life a lot of people just like having them around, watching them,” Fairbrother said.

The purpose of bird boxes is to mimic natural cavities in trees, usually created by woodpeckers and sought after by birds incapable of making their own, according to Kamm.

“The reason why bird boxes are so important, for bluebirds and tree swallows especially, is they’re really at the heart of it grassland birds. They’re birds that nest in trees but forage in open country,” Kamm said.

The birds are looking for conveniently perforated trees relatively alone in fields, a combination that is increasingly rare as grasslands are developed or previously cleared land is reclaimed by forest, according to Kamm.

Whatever their value, it appears the birdhouses can wait.

Tree swallows have left the area for the winter, the local Christmas Bird Count found none and Kamm said Eastern Bluebirds are not nesting at this time of year.

Kamm said the shelters are more properly called bird boxes than birdhouses, and it is a common misconception that birds live in nests year-round.

While birds may use the boxes for shelter outside the nesting season, they are capable of fending for themselves in the off-season and only require the specific conditions of the bird box or tree cavity while incubating eggs and rearing their young.

Friday, Cotton said he was expecting a call from the utility with the final plan for replacement of the boxes.

“It’s not really a significant effort to remove them so they’re not damaged during the process of the work, and then just finding the right spots to put them back up again and they’ll be there for a long time, and that’s kind of nice,” Cotton said. “When my daughters and I or my wife walk up there we’ll enjoy seeing the birds fly in and out.”

You can reach Chris Curtis at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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