Be A Good Barn Swallow Host

By Michelle Jackson, Conservation Research Biologist

Spring is around the corner, at least here in BC. Resident birds are testing their voices in preparation for the breeding season. Soon migratory birds will begin to return from their balmy winters down south. Among these will be the barn swallows, those aerial acrobats whose characteristic dipping and diving bring to mind hot sunny days and green fields. Barn swallows are clearly identifiable with their long, forked tails and reddish-orange underbellies. They build cup-shaped nests out of mud and grass, often quite visible in human structures like barns, sheds, and house eaves. Many of us find joy in watching barn swallow chicks grow into awkward, fluffy fledglings tentatively spreading their wings for the first time.

But did you know that barn swallows are on the decline? Across Canada, barn swallows have declined by 76% since the 1970s and are federally listed as threatened. “We used to have swallows flying in and out of our barn all day. There would be seven or eight nests each year. Last year there was one, and this year they haven’t returned at all.” This is a typical remark made by landowners in our watershed and is one we hear over and over again. Why? Reasons for barn swallow declines are complex and interacting, but two main causes stand out as primary – habitat loss and insect declines. Barn swallows need open fields for foraging and accessible buildings for nesting, both of which are being lost to development and agricultural changes. Along with other swallows, they need flying insects for food, which are also experiencing steep global declines.

Although the facts are sobering, there are things you can do to help protect these beautiful birds. The pandemic has made for strange times, and many are lamenting the loss of freedom to travel. But spring will bring many opportunities to get to know your own backyard more intimately, and perhaps take on a project to conserve your local wildlife. Here are some actions you can take to provide good habitat for barn swallows as you await their arrival in the coming months.

1. Preserve natural habitat on your property and plant native flowers, trees, and shrubs.

A biodiverse, native garden will attract a lot more insects than cut grass. These insects will provide food for swallows and other birds, and many will also be beneficial pollinators.

2. Consider building a pond or wetland, or work to protect those that already exist in your area.

Recent studies are finding that insects that emerge from an aquatic larval stage over ponds and wetland have higher nutritional value for swallows than terrestrial insects. Ponds and wetlands also provide sources of water (critical in the hot summer months) and mud, an important component in barn swallow nests.

3. Provide easy swallow access to barns and sheds.

Swallows need to be able to swoop in and out quickly and frequently to feed nestlings, so leave doors or windows open during the breeding season if possible.

4. Install wooden nest cups or shelves in outbuildings to encourage nesting.

Nest cups or shelves should be at least 8-10 cm wide and placed 15 cm below the ceiling. This might also help to encourage swallows away from unsuitable nesting areas such as wires or light fixtures.

5. Control bugs naturally.

Pesticide use is one of the primary causes of insect declines, so encourage your neighbourhood to go pesticide-free. Bugs are a vital link in the vast, interconnected global food chain!

6. Become a citizen scientist and monitor your barn swallow nest, then share your observations.

If you live in BC’s lower mainland you can join A Rocha’s ongoing barn swallow nest monitoring program by contacting us here. If you live elsewhere, you can contribute nest observations to Birds Canada’s Project Nestwatch. The more data that exists on swallow nesting, the better able we will be to understand and reverse their declines.

Like what you’re reading? Check out 5 Tips for Beginner Bird Watchers from A Rocha Manitoba.

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