Saving the Swallows one birdhouse at a time

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Felicia Syer-Nicol says her family has noticed there are fewer swallows swooping around their St. Clair Township property.
And they’re trying to change that.
Syer-Nicol, who is the president of the Lambton wing of the National Farmers’ Union, hosted a workshop Saturday at the family farm on the Kimball Sideroad. Along side her was the National Director of Nature Canada. The NFU and Nature Canada have teamed up and with the help of a $451,000 grant, hopes to educate people about the drastic decline in the number of swallows in Ontario.
Ted Cheskey says the situation is dire. Over 40 years of date shows Ontario’s swallows are in trouble. All six species are on the decline. “There has been a 60 per cent decline of swallows – the most of any group and some of the species it is even higher,” Cheskey says. The population of Bank Swallows has dropped 98 per cent in 40 years.
Cheskey says there are a number of reasons swallows could be in decline. The birds eat insects as they swoop through the air.
“The thread that ties them together is they eat insects in flight and the insect population is declining,” he says. “The root cause could be related to different types of pesticides being used.”
The bee industry has been sounding the alarm about the use of neonicotinoid. They kill not just a specific pest, but all insects in its path. It also can kill off larvae of insects in roadside ditches and ponds leading to less food for the birds.
Cheskey says the changing climate may also be causing the birds “stress.” Cooler temperatures, like we had this spring, means the swallow’s food source isn’t available when the return from Brazil in the spring. “It’s cold, there is no food, so it is lights out.”
And early heat waves don’t help either. That forces insects to hatch sooner and means the insects are gone by the time the swallows return.
Cheskey says for some of the birds, habitat is a problem.
Barn swallows used to be prolific when barns were made of wood and had lots of nooks and crannies for the birds to escape. “The new steel sheds are hermetically sealed,” he says noting bio security measures mean birds can cause problems.
If birds do roost in the shes, Syer-Nicol says they can “bake” in the heat of the rafters with no place to get out.
Cheskey says other birds, like the Purple Martins, are completely dependent on humans for housing.
In the 1970s, there was a push to provide the gourd-like nests the birds needed and for a time, he says, it helped. But those shelters are getting old and in need of repair. The problem, says Cheskey, is people simply have forgotten about them.
While the situation is dire, Cheskey says Nature Canada and the NFU hope to improve the swallow population. Saturday’s workshop was one of the ways to get farmers thinking about planting native crops which will bring the swallow’s food source – insects – back to their property.
The 70 people also were encouraged to make bird houses to attract swallows.
And Cheskey says farmers can put native plants along waterways to help stop runoff from going into the ditches. That would keep insect larvae alive, and provide another food source for the birds.
And they’re renewing the stock of Purple Martin housing across the province.
For more information, visit naturecanada.ca/SOS