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Where have all the barn swallows gone?

Feb 01 2012

My mother used to predict the weather by looking at the flight patterns of barn swallows. "Low flies the swallow, rain to follow." I have childhood memories of growing up with the "hirondelles" in the South of France, and I remember the excitement we felt when we spotted a swallow nest under the roof of our house. I loved listening to the high-pitched sounds the swallows made in the warm summer nights. Over thirty years later, every time I return to my parents' house, I look for the swallows, but sadly I am now looking at empty skies. The swallows are gone, and the pigeons have taken up residence under our roof.

The barn swallow is one of the world's most widely and common bird species. Yet for decades now, swallows are declining at an alarming rate. And Canada is no exception. Canadian Breeding Bird Survey data has shown that in the last 20 years, the population of barn swallows has fallen by 70 percent. This year, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has assessed the barn swallow as Threatened.

In July of this year, videographer Mike McKinley and myself went to check out barn swallow nests with Derek Matthews, master bander at the Vancouver Avian Research Centre, a non-profit organization he founded to monitor bird populations in the Lower Mainland region.This field trip resulted in “Plight of the Barn Swallow,” a video we put together to support our campaign to obtain legislation for species at risk in British Columbia.

Derek Matthews has always been passionate about birds. He started banding birds in England when he was 10, and continued to do so after he moved from London to Vancouver. In the last ten years, Matthews has noticed that less and less barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) come back to his banding station. "For all of us growing up, barn swallows were just basically a way of life," he says. Today, the barn swallow cannot be taken for granted anymore. Researchers have examined several explanations to explain the decline, including agricultural practices, urbanization, loss of nesting sites, and foraging habitat. They are now turning to the decline in abundance of aerial (flying) insects as the main culprit for the massive bird losses. Barn swallows belong to the "guild" of aerial insectivores which feed on flying insects and include such species as whip-poor-wills, nighthawks, swifts, martins, and flycatchers. Like swallows, other aerial insectivores have suffered dramatic declines.

Watch the video, learn about these amazing creatures, and if you feel strongly about keeping barn swallows around, please sign our petition to ask for endangered species legislation in BC.

 

 -- Isabelle Groc for the Wilderness Committee --

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