The fight to save de­clin­ing barn swal­lows

Pop­u­la­tion in On­tario has plum­meted — down 65 per cent be­tween 1966 and 2009

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - LIAM CASEY

The long grass sways as a soft sum­mer wind sweeps un­der two strange struc­tures, blow­ing with it the faint smell of ma­nure, in an oth­er­wise empty On­tario field. Un­der one, which looks like a tiny house on stilts, Myles Fal­coner care­fully re­moves five barn swal­low chicks from their nest to have them weighed, mea­sured and banded.

“The chicks are too young to get ornery,” Fal­coner says as he han­dles the tiny song­birds, “but we wouldn’t want to do this in a few weeks.”

The bi­ol­o­gist is part of a small team with Bird Stud­ies Canada that is re­search­ing barn swal­lows in an ef­fort to un­der­stand why their pop­u­la­tion in On­tario has plum­meted — down 65 per cent be­tween 1966 and 2009, ac­cord­ing to the pro­vin­cial govern­ment.

No one re­ally knows what’s caus­ing the de­cline, but re­searchers sus­pect habi­tat loss for the small bird, the strik­ing aerial in­sec­ti­vore with an iri­des­cent steel-blue back, rusty red fore­head and throat, and distinc­tive forked tails.

That is the fo­cus of a unique ex­per­i­ment Bird Stud­ies Canada launched two years ago in Townsend, Ont., where the prov­ince had de­clared a par­cel of land sur­plus, which meant that eight di­lap­i­dated build­ings — some of them barns — lo­cated there had to be taken down.

Sus­pect­ing some of those old build­ing might be home to barn swal­low nests, In­fra­struc­ture On­tario, which man­ages thou­sands of gov­ern­men­towned prop­er­ties across the prov­ince, hired en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sult­ing firm Cole Engi­neer­ing to con­duct a land sur­vey.

“If we’re tak­ing down the barn, we would be break­ing the law if we didn’t do habi­tat com­pen­sa­tion,” says Lisa Mys­licki, of In­fra­struc­ture On­tario.

Un­der On­tario’s En­dan­gered Species Act, an­i­mals con­sid­ered a species at risk, such as barn swal­lows, and their habi­tat must be pro­tected.

After the barn swal­lows flew south in the fall of 2015, Cole Engi­neer­ing — with fund­ing from the On­tario govern­ment — de­signed and built the two struc­tures, which now house seven ac­tive bird nests.

As adult barn swal­lows whip around the area, Chris Par­ent, a bi­ol­o­gist with Cole Engi­neer­ing, points out the in­tri­ca­cies of the birds’ build­ings he helped de­sign.

Par­ent ex­am­ined the old barns, which have since been de­mol­ished, to fig­ure out where the birds were nest­ing. In his de­sign, he in­cor­po­rated three styles of nests in­spired by their lo­ca­tions in the old barn: ledges, cups and cross struc­tures.

“The idea be­ing the barn swal­lows would se­lect for them­selves what would serve as the best nest­ing site,” Par­ent says. This is an­other as­pect of the study the bi­ol­o­gists are mon­i­tor­ing. So far, the birds seem to pre­fer the ledges and cups.

The two new bird houses are dif­fer­ent, one with a longer over­hang than the other, which pro­vides dif­fer­ent tem­per­a­tures for the birds, Par­ent ex­plains, re­plete with a ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem.

And there’s a se­cu­rity sys­tem. Four large gal­va­nized steel cones pro­tect the birds from preda­tors, at least the ter­res­trial kind, de­signed with rac­coons in mind.

“Pic­ture a rac­coon go­ing up one of those pil­lars, us­ing three legs to hold on and one try­ing to reach around that cone,” Par­ent says. “Well, the di­men­sion of that cone is ap­prox­i­mately five cen­time­tres be­yond the grasp of an av­er­age rac­coon.”

There are five other sim­i­lar sites in On­tario, says Kristyn Richard­son, a bi­ol­o­gist with Bird Stud­ies Canada, but they usu­ally only have one nest­ing pair. But she says the two struc­tures in Townsend are the most suc­cess­ful so far.

In ad­di­tion to those six sites, she says, Bird Stud­ies Canada is also study­ing about 20 other barns with nests.

The re­searchers are also mon­i­tor­ing the birds’ move­ments, Richard­son says.

Last sum­mer, they cap­tured barn swal­lows and placed “nano tags” on them, which emit a ra­dio fre­quency. With four tow­ers set up to de­tect the sig­nals and a hand-held re­ceiver, they dis­cov­ered the birds stay close to the nests as they feed, never fly­ing far­ther than 200 me­tres from home.

And last fall, they were able to trace the barn swal­lows’ flights south. First, they flew to Long Point, a penin­sula that juts deep into Lake Erie, where they hung out in the area marshes for a lit­tle bit, be­fore their long jour­ney south to the Ama­zon basin, Richard­son says.

With an­kle bands, the re­searchers hope to find some swal­lows that re­turn to the nest­ing grounds as proof for their hy­poth­e­sis that the birds re­turn to the same area year after year. It’s still early days in the world of re­search, but they’re also study­ing sur­vival and dis­per­sal.

“For a bird that used to be so com­mon,” Richard­son says, “it’s a sad and alarm­ing thing that we’re los­ing so many of them this quickly.”

“It’s a sad and alarm­ing thing that we’re los­ing so many of them this quickly. KRISTYN RICHARD­SON BIRD STUD­IES CANADA BI­OL­O­GIST

NATHAN DENETTE, THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Chris Par­ent of Cole Engi­neer­ing Group Ltd. de­signed this cus­tom-built barn swal­low nest­ing habi­tat. He in­cor­po­rated three styles of nests.

Kristyn Richard­son, a bi­ol­o­gist with Bird Stud­ies Canada, says there are five other sim­i­lar sites in On­tario, but Townsend’s struc­tures are the most suc­cess­ful so far.

Above: Tay­lor Brown blows the feath­ers apart on a young barn swal­low check­ing the bird’s fat and then weighs the bird.

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