Posts Tagged ‘Barn Swallow’


Northern Cardinal

This beautiful cardinal can be heard every morning now, singing out his song from a treetop perch. He’s been here all winter, but he has just started giving full voice to his chorus of “Birdie, Birdie, Birdie! Whit, whit, whit!” in the last week or so. What female could resist him?

It’s hard to believe that it was only last weekend that I spotted the first Red-winged Blackbird. Now they are everywhere, chucking and oak-a-leeing in the branches and foraging beneath the bird feeders. Over the course of the week, other migrants have joined them. There are quite a number of Common Grackles joining their numbers. Look at the beautiful iridescent colours on this fellow, helping himself to a seed at the feeder.


Common Grackle

As I was walking past a pine tree, I noticed a Brown-headed Cowbird keeping a cautious eye on me. There have been a few American Robins around for a few weeks, but now they are back in plentiful numbers. And this morning, I spotted a pair of Hooded Mergansers on the river. They skillfully avoided my attempts to capture them with my camera, taking off for a site farther upstream.

The birds are early, ready to put The Winter That Wasn’t behind them and move on to spring. This winter was the 3rd warmest on record here. Three of the warmest winters ever have been recorded in the last six years. What was additionally notable about this winter was the lack of precipitation. It was also the second driest winter on record.

How are these shifts in winter weather patterns affecting migrating birds?


Brown-headed Cowbird

A special report titled The Winter that Wasn’t: Bird Migration aired on CBC’s morning show The Current on March 7th. Biologist Allen Hurlbert from the University of North Carolina, B.C. biologist Dick Cannings and eBird editor Mike Burrell from Bancroft all addressed this question.

They note that the timing of migration is vitally important to the success of the upcoming breeding season. If a bird arrives back too early, he may encounter the bad weather and lack of food he flew south to avoid. If he arrives back too late, he may fail to find a good breeding territory and prospective mate.

One of the most important elements about timing is hitting the height of the insect season just right. Birds need a big supply of bugs to feed their demanding young. Without them, chicks may starve. If a warm spell disrupts normal insect patterns, causing bug populations to peak earlier, parent birds may not be able to adequately supply their young with food if they have started nesting according to their normal schedule.

We often have a poor appreciation of just how interconnected the natural world is. Failure or changes to one sector can have a ripple effect right through an ecosystem. Some bird species, such as Red-eyed Vireos seem to be adapting to changing weather patterns. Other species, such as Barn Swallows have been devastated. While Barn Swallows were once common birds, their numbers have plummeted by 75% over the last few decades.

You can learn more by listening to the full broadcast linked here.


American Robin

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Yesterday, we had a lovely rainy day. The rain was much needed. While we have had occassional storms roll through, prescipitation has not been enough to offset the steamy hot days of July and the land is dry. Our little backyard stream, which gushes along like a raging river in spring, has been reduced to a series of puddles joined by a trickle of water. Today dawned bright with a scattering of clouds. After lunch, I took a stroll down to see how the river was doing. It was up significantly from its pre-rain level, though still low.


A big plastic box of newspapers had somehow made its way into the river. Hard to guess how it might have got there, here in the middle of an agricultural area. Everywhere people go, it seems, garbage follows.


I sat and watched the river flowing by. It was very quiet. As I approached, a Great Blue Heron retreated, but otherwise the only creature stirring was a single dragonfly. It obligingly landed near me, a Common Whitetail (Libellula subornata), a member of the skimmer family.


The temperature was quite pleasant, and the deerflies and mosquitoes weren’t pestering, so I carried on down to look at our pond. Along the way I passed a Barn Swallow family. This youngster, perched on the electric fence, is newly fledged. His parents took a dim view of me stopping to photograph their baby and made several close passes to discourage me. These youngsters are late, and I was glad to see them doing well, as the Barn Swallow population is in serious decline.


As I approached the pond, this pair of Painted Turtles, comfortably sunning themselves on a log, looked up suspiciously and soon decided to take their leave, slipping into the water and disappearing.


The low water level in the pond has revealed a number of burrows not usually visable. I’m not sure who lives here. A muskrat, maybe.


The mix of sun and cloud was perfect for creating beautiful reflections in the water.


It was pretty quiet down by the pond, too. Although there were a few dragonflies and frogs and waterstriders about, there was surprisingly little activity. I headed back toward the house, saying hello to Diva and Ivory on the way. They were too busy to visit.


As I walked through the garden, I noticed this garter snake keeping a close eye on me.


I admired today’s blooms as I walked back to the house. Here’s a closing photo from the garden, daylily ‘Asiatic Pheasant’.


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Welcome Back!

The first Tree Swallows arrived back at Willow House this week. I saw a pair briefly on Monday morning, but there was no sign of them in the afternoon. The next morning, however, there were five swallows zooming around the sky over the pond, chittering and squabbling with each other. Guys! No need to quarrel! There’s space for everyone!

One pair seems to have settled on the box on the western edge of the pond. I expect as the season progresses, later arrivals will check out the possibilities too. There’s still no sign of barn swallows, but it’s nice to see the travelers beginning to return.

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I’ve been in horse stables where Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) were nesting above the horses’ heads, barely out of arms-reach of people coming and going and everyone got on fine. The several pairs of swallows nesting in the barn here, however, are upset whenever I enter the barn, even though they are far overhead on the roof rafters. They seem to feel they should have the barn to themselves and set up a cacophony of distressed chittering when I arrive.

tree swallows

Meanwhile, just down the field the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) are carrying nesting materials to their box.


When I was walking past this small pine tree, putting hay out for the horses’ breakfast, I noticed a dark shape near the trunk of the tree. A closer look revealed this female American Robin (Turdus migratorius) sitting on her nest.


Robins are numerous around here. When I was walking along the river, I noticed another mother robin, incubating her eggs.


Robins usually sit tight. That is, even when disturbed by a person close at hand, they stick to their nest and stay still. One season when Birdgirl was working on a nest monitoring study, she came across one robin who wouldn’t budge until she was actually putting her fingers in the nest to check for eggs. Now that’s a dedicated mom. In contrast to robins, Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) are quite easily disturbed. When I walked past a small spruce tree, a grackle made a hasty exit and I knew to look for a nest. Here it is!


The mother retreated to the top of a nearby tree and complained loudly about my presence from the safety of her high perch. With both robins and grackles, the female incubates the eggs, keeping the eggs warm with her body. In order to warm the eggs efficiently, the female develops a brood patch, an area of skin on the belly that loses its feathers toward the end of the egg-laying period. Most birds shed the feathers automatically, though geese and ducks pluck the feathers and add the to the nest. The brood patch also develops extra blood vessels to bring hot blood close to the surface of the skin. When birds return to the nest after a break to resume incubating, they make settling-in movements while they position the brood patch so it is in contact with the eggs. In species where the male also incubates, males may also develop a brood patch. The feathers gradually grow back in after brooding is done.


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Every winter, I think I will get around to building a birdhouse or two. I’m not particularly competent with a saw and hammer, but surely this is a basic enough task that even I might manage it. Every spring arrives with no new birdhouse. This year, I was anxious to get a few boxes up for swallows around the pond, and as the breeding season is upon us, I went out and bought several. I have had good luck in the past with the cedar houses carried by Walmart, pictured above, with Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon), and on one momentous occasion even an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) pair successfully nesting and fledging young from this model. Bigger boxes would be better for Tree Swallows. Unfortunately, these are the best I’ve located, but hopefully I’ll be able to find or build bigger ones to replace them with down the road.


The quickest, easiest method I have found to get a birdhouse mounted on a post and installed is to use one of the metal spikes designed to support 4 x 4 posts. Even in rather rocky terrain, I was able to install them myself, and here in sandy soil, it’s a snap.
I put up three houses in likely locations around the pond in the afternoon and when I went out the next morning, they were being checked out by Tree Swallows.


The Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario (2001-2005) offers the most comprehensive information available on who breeds where in the province. The current Atlas is the second edition and updates the status of breeding birds in Ontario from the first Atlas, completed in 1981-85. Since the 1980s, there has been a decline of up to 30 to 50 per cent in birds such as the Common Nighthawk, the Chimney Swift and six species of swallow. According to the Atlas, the Tree Swallow population overall in Ontario declined by 17%, but because of limitations in Atlas methodology in assessing population numbers, the actual decline may be greater. Annual Bird Studies Canada Breeding Bird Surveys show a decline of 2.6% every year over the 1981-2005 period. Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) showed a 35% decline using Atlas data, while annual Breeding Bird Surveys show an annual decline of 3.5% every year on average over the 1981-2005 period.

You can read more about the Atlas at the Environment Canada site. You can purchase the Atlas through Ontario Nature.


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Back in March, while there was still snow on the ground, I noticed a nest high up in the hoophouse on a bit of old machinery. It had been deserted last summer before the four eggs had hatched. I removed the nest to photograph it and didn’t replace it. Today, I walked into the hoophouse, looking for a shovel and glanced up. The nest was back! A pair of robins (Turdus migratorius) have replaced the nest in exactly the same spot. I hope they are successful in fledging a family from the new nest.


Meanwhile, out in the old barn, a half a dozen old nests on the roof rafters are evidence of Barn Swallows past. This week, Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) returned and when I entered the barn a few days ago, I was greeted by their disapproving chatter. Like robins, Barn Swallows use mud in the construction of their nest, but plaster the cup-like structure to a wall or beam in a sheltered location. The above view, looking up at one of the nests on the roof rafters, reveals the occupants forded tail! Swallow flight is swift and acrobatic, and they were difficult to capture with the camera as they flitted in and out of the barn, but here is one resting on a beam near the barn entrance.


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