Coastal Conservation

Panhandle’s Santa Rosa Mall Helps Audubon Save Imperiled Least Terns

Emily McKiddy, Audubon Florida's Panhandle Rooftop Coordinator, works year-round from Pensacola to Panama City. She surveys a variety of gravel rooftop-nesting birds and works with building owners, volunteers, and partners to return tiny, fallen chicks to rooftop nests and to install protective measures that will prevent tiny chicks from falling in subsequent years.

In spring 2017, Audubon Florida and the Santa Rosa Mall in Mary Ester collaborated in retrofitting a section of the mall roof to protect State Threatened Least Terns.  In the largest panhandle Florida project of its kind to date, Audubon employees and volunteers installed special “chick fencing” along the 1500-foot rooftop perimeter above the Mall’s Sears store. 

Over two thousand pounds of bricks and chicken wire were loaded onto the rooftop of the Sears section of the mall.  The fencing will increase the chicks’ chances of survival by eliminating falls off unprotected rooftop edges when frightened or by being washed down the storm drains during heavy rain – two leading causes of chick mortality from rooftop sites.

The Florida Panhandle is an important breeding ground for Least Terns. As the number of beach visitors climbed and as coastal development increased in past decades, disturbance-sensitive Least Terns progressively chose to abandon preferred beach nesting sites in favor of flat, gravel rooftops like the Santa Rosa Mall in Mary Ester.

With the combined efforts of the Sears staff, the mall operations manager, Paul Blackwell, and the mall owners, this site has successfully hosted a large colony of Least Terns for the past few years.  During Audubon’s weekly surveys of this site last year, it was noted that chicks were falling off the roof to the parking lot. Fallen chicks face immediate threats from overexposure, dehydration, predators, and getting crushed by vehicles. Installation of the chick fencing protects the baby birds until they can fly and makes Audubon’s Rooftop Nesting Program an essential component of a successful breeding season for this threatened species.  Audubon Florida has eight other rooftop sites with special protection for protected nesting species in the Panhandle.

A special thank you to the Santa Rosa Mall staff for supporting this project and the annual nesting Least Tern colony as well as the Audubon volunteers that helped install the fencing for the 2017 season. 

Interested in helping the Florida Panhandle Rooftop Nesting Program? Volunteers are needed from Panama City to Pensacola. Contact Emily McKiddy at (608) 332-3802 or

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