Compelling arguments for preserving large habitat 'islands' have been made for a number of animal groups, but most commonly for terrestrial birds. We argue that, for many species of waterbirds nesting in coastal estuaries, maintaining numerous small islands may be a more effective management strategy than maintaining larger islands or reserves. In this study, the number of great white heron Ardea herodias nests over a 5-year period (1986-91) was negatively correlated with island area in the Florida Keys, USA. Nest densities were highest in the 210 ha island size range and lowest for islands larger than 100 ha. These small islands also attract nesting black skimmers Rynchops niger, brown pelicans Pelecanus occidentalis, and several species of terns and gulls. Small estuarine islands are vulnerable to sea level rise, erosion from watercraft, and, for dredge material islands, lack of sufficient maintenance because of competing needs for beach nourishment. Managers need to enforce more buffering and protection of these islands and argue for more dredged material allocations in some areas.