By Michelle Jackson (PhD)
This summer, A Rocha Canada has teamed up with private landowners in the Little Campbell River Watershed to continue and expand a Barn Swallow monitoring program that began in 2014. Barn Swallows are migratory birds whose populations have been drastically declining in Canada since the mid-1980s. Unlike many species, Barn Swallows actually benefit from human-modified rural landscapes. They nest in barns and sheds and forage on insects over open fields and pastures. However, they now face habitat loss due to the conversion of agricultural land into urban development, and pesticide use has precipitated a decline in swallow’s insect prey. Barn Swallows were listed as threatened in Canada in 2011 and have declined by 76% over the past 40 years.
In order to better understand their biology in our area, staff and interns at A Rocha began monitoring Barn Swallows at several known breeding sites, including Brooksdale, in 2014. This year we hoped to increase our knowledge of the species in the Little Campbell Watershed by identifying more nesting locations. Much of the watershed is characterized by small, private farms containing barns and sheds ideal for Barn Swallow nesting. We mailed letters to 100 farm owners with properties that appeared suitable, identified using aerial imagery. The letters described A Rocha’s conservation efforts and asked about the presence of swallow nests on the properties. Several landowners responded, excited to share news of the swallows nesting in their barns. Word of the study spread among neighbors and friends, and several new sites were found via word of mouth along with our letters. As if to confirm the species’ threatened status, most landowners reported having witnessed serious swallow declines on their properties; some contacted us only to say that in recent years, their swallows had not returned at all.
This summer, our team is visiting Barn Swallow nests weekly at sites throughout the watershed. We use a camera attached to a long extendable pole to peer into nests and count eggs and chicks. We follow the chicks through to fledging, often finding new eggs from a second brood soon after first-brood chicks have left the nest. This study has spawned new partnerships and friendships while generating awareness about A Rocha’s creation care work among our neighbors. We hope to continue long-term monitoring of Barn Swallows in order to better understand and mitigate their decline. The Little Campbell River watershed constitutes only a small portion of BC’s lower mainland, but its barns and fields provide a haven for Barn Swallows and other species that thrive in rural human-modified landscapes.