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Birds found an improbable home next to a Market Basket parking lot. Now they’re gone.

Caelin Graber stands near a retention pond that served as habitat for birds and other species, until it was recently dredged, displacing the wildlife.
Todd Bookman/NHPR
Caelin Graber stands near a retention pond that served as habitat for birds and other species, until it was recently dredged, displacing the wildlife.

Caelin Graber is now banned from entering the Market Basket grocery store in Milford, so she has to conduct an interview from across the street.

“This was my Market Basket that I shopped at regularly,” she says, ducking into some shade on a recent sunny afternoon.

Nearby, cars and trucks on Route 101 barrel past. There’s a DMV office and a quick lube mechanic shop all within easy reach. Not exactly a serene locale. And yet, at the edge of the Market Basket parking lot, a little slice of nature emerged.

(Tune in this summer for more stories about New Hampshire’s animals in NHPR's series, Furry. Scaly. Slimy. Winged.)

In the mid-1990s, the company constructed a retention pond to catch stormwater runoff from the parking lot. Over the years, cattails and other plant life rooted in the ditch, attracting birds and other species.

“There were numerous blackbirds, both red-winged blackbirds and grackles, that were nesting in the cattails,” says Graber, who teaches biology to nursing students at local community colleges.

Blackbirds often nest close to the ground, many choosing the cover of marsh plants or dense grass over the height of a tree.

In mid-May, Graber drove from her home in Greenville to do some grocery shopping here, and noticed a backhoe was in the retention pond, uprooting the reeds, sending the birds into the sky.

In mid-May, Market Basket hired a contractor to dredge the retention pond, which local nature lovers say displaced nesting birds.
Used with permission
In mid-May, Market Basket hired a contractor to dredge the retention pond, which local nature lovers say displaced nesting birds.

Graber ran in to talk to a manager, to tell them about the nesting birds she feared would be displaced by the construction, but she says no one in the store wanted to get involved.

She rushed home and made a sign that said “Blackbird Nesting Area” and returned to the side of the drainage pond, trying to alert shoppers.

Graber worked the phones, too, and soon a small crew of local nature lovers were standing on the banks, pleading with the backhoe operator to pause his work. In video footage, birds are visible, clinging to cattails before the bucket swings in to dig out the plants.

“The adult birds were flying around in a panic,” says Graber. “It was a very chaotic and heart wrenching scene.”

Graber went back the next day. She says police asked her to leave the property, and they told her she was no longer allowed in the grocery store. The project was completed by the end of the morning.

In the aftermath, Graber says they didn’t find any surviving birds, evidence of nests, or bird corpses. One bird – a juvenile grackle – was rescued by the group, and brought to an animal sanctuary. It was healthy and later released back into the wild.

Today, the retention pond is fully cleared out, with newly planted grass growing on the banks.

Standing on the opposite side of the street, it looks more like a golf course water feature, and not the wild habitat it used to be.

Records show Market Basket was issued a permit in 1994 by the state to build this pond to manage stormwater runoff from the parking lot. A spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Services said the area can be cleared out, as needed, to remain functional, without an additional permit.

By not regularly clearing out the ditch, though, a little ecosystem was allowed to develop over the years. The birds didn’t care they were in a shopping plaza, right next door to Route 101.

“It gives me delight just to see nature wherever it manifests, you know,” says Graber.

The retention pond after dredging.
Todd Bookman/NHPR
The retention pond after dredging.

She doesn’t consider herself a birder, but rather someone who is aware of the ongoing threat to biodiversity and habitat loss taking place worldwide. “We need to preserve these places,” she says. “We need to give them places to go or nature as we know it will be gone.”

Market Basket declined several requests for comment for this story.

In the aftermath of the construction, Graber said she has been in contact with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent to determine if the project violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, or any other federal regulations.

Graber said she’s not calling for a Market Basket boycott, but she does want an apology on behalf of the birds for what happened here, or a donation to a conservation group.

“This is a poster child for what happens every day, everywhere,” she says. “And at some point you have to stand up. This is death by a thousand cuts.”

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.