At least that’s the theory behind a unique idea biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office used when they placed plastic egret decoys to entice snowy egrets to nest on Poplar Island.

Chesapeake Bay islands have always provided nesting homes to numerous colonial waterbirds. These wading birds and seabirds nest in large social colonies and often prefer islands because there are fewer predators. The snowy egret is one such species. Until the early 1990’s, snowy egrets still nested on the rapidly eroding remnants of the natural Poplar Island. When Poplar Island became too small, the snowy egrets abandoned their former colony. After the island restoration began in 1998, snowy egrets made various attempts to nest. Unfortunately, none were successful.

In an effort to attract snowy egrets to nest, biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office and U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center placed 24 plastic egret decoys on a smaller island within Poplar Island. Duck hunters frequently place a few egret decoys near their duck decoys to make the environment look more natural, thus attracting more ducks. In this case, biologists hoped that clustering egret decoys together would successfully attract a nesting colony of snowy egrets.

After placing the decoys on March 11 th, 2004, biologists waited, hoping their ploy would work. In mid-April, biologists noticed snowy egrets congregating amongst the decoys. It looked like they were setting up shop. Sure enough, in mid-May, there were over 2 dozen active nests, each with 2-5 eggs. Was this a false start or would the nests succeed?

They did succeed! And as biologists carefully monitored the egret colony, they found over 50 nests. The first downy hatchlings were spotted by June 1st. More followed and soon several dozen chicks were exploring their colony and testing their new wings. Seven or 8 weeks after hatching, the fledglings began leaving the colony to begin their lives as adult egrets. Biologists estimate that by summer’s end, 100 snowy egret chicks successfully fledged. They now hope that many egrets will return over the next few years to bolster this small but promising colony.

Snowy egrets are one of the 125+ bird species spotted on Poplar Island since island restoration began. A short, but growing list of species now nests on the island. Wildlife biologists will be implementing more and more projects like the decoy effort to help those species succeed. Though individually small, many future projects like this will ensure that wildlife successfully colonizes the evolving Poplar Island.

About Poplar Island

Poplar Island is a 1,100-acre restoration site in central Chesapeake Bay. Starting in 1998 the current island was built on the same watery location where the natural Poplar Island had existed for hundreds of years. Three hundred years ago, the island may have covered 2,000 acres, but by 1990, all but 10 had eroded away. Using almost 7 miles of perimeter dikes and 43 million cubic yards of sediment from the Bay’s shipping channels, a group of state and federal agencies is restoring the island. One of their primary motives is to help nesting birds.

USFWS biologist sets up a decoy on Poplar Island
USFWS biologist Jason Miller places a plastic egret decoy near Poplar Island to attract a nesting colony of snowy egrets - Photo, USFWS

Decoys as they appear from the water - USFWS photo
Plastic egret decoys near Poplar Island - Photo, USFWS

Egret nest with eggs, USFWS photo
Evidence that decoys work: a nest - Photo, USFWS

Snowy egret hatchling, USFWS photo
USFWS biologist holding a snowy egret hatchling at decoy site - Photo, USFWS


For more information on snowy egrets:

US Fish & Wildlife Service

US Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

For more information on Poplar Island:

Army Corps of Engineers Baltimore District