Foam Lake Birding No. 176

No. 176
                After leaving home for good in the mid 1960s to start my career in education I really missed the birds and birdsong that were ever present on the farm.  In particular I missed the Barn Swallows.  As in most farmsteads in our area there were many older buildings made of logs of which one was usually a barn.  In the summer doors were left open to keep the buildings cool and to air them out.  The situation was ideal for Barn Swallows to build nests in.  Since most farms had a variety of livestock and pest control was non-existent there were all sorts of flying insects for the swallows to feed on as well.  As a result every farm had at least one pair of nesting Barn Swallows and often more. 
                Prior to European settlement of the Americas Barn Swallows built their nests in caves and overhanging rock - anyplace solid that was protected from the rain.  As the settlers started to construct buildings, bridges and so on the swallows abandoned the caves and cliffs and moved into the new man-made structures.  As a result the swallow population expanded its numbers and range dramatically.  For example, the Canadian Prairies which were essentially swallow-free now had swallows everywhere (and still do).  Incidentally, the only known site of Barn Swallows nesting regularly in caves today is on the channel islands off the coast of California. 
                During this period in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century the millinery industry relied heavily on wild birds to provide both feathers and the birds themselves to adorn women's hats which were in high fashion then.  Egrets were favoured for their feathers but Barn Swallows were actually stuffed and mounted on the hats in various desirable poses.   The killing of Barn Swallows got so extreme that groups of concerned people decided to petition the government to put some sort of controls on the indiscriminate killing of all wildlife.  The governments of both the USA and Canada responded by passing various acts protecting wildlife - acts that exist to this very day.  In addition to government intervention concerned individuals formed societies especially to protect wildlife.  One of the most famous of conservation groups to emerge from this period was the Audubon Society.  To this day it carries out the work of protecting wildlife particularly species at risk. 
                In the last fifty years or so things seem to have gone in reverse.  The small farms with their numerous buildings and livestock have virtually disappeared from the landscape resulting in much larger farms usually specializing in crop production only.  Often this necessitates controlling insects with powerful insecticides which are non-selective and kill all insects both good and bad thus leaving birds like swallows with much less to eat.  This "double whammy" of the loss of both nesting sites and feedstock has been very difficult for them.  The result has been  a dramatic decline in the Barn Swallow population in the Americas although they are still common.  The province of Ontario has gone so far as to list them as "threatened'.  Considering that the worldwide population is still estimated to be about 190 million birds this designation might be just a little premature. 
                There is hope though.  Barn Swallows are very adaptable and seem to be moving into towns.  Here, buildings abound and many of them do have suitable nesting sites.  Although there is very little livestock in towns there is also very little use of insecticides for "bug" control.  All this bodes well for the swallows.  Barn Swallows are very messy but are lovable enough that most people tolerate them with good humour.  At the moment I am aware of three Barn Swallows nests in Foam Lake one of which is on our neighbour's house just under the south peak.  I am sure there are more.  This week's picture is of a Barn Swallow incubating eggs at our neighbour's place. 
                Barn Swallows are one of the most widely distributed birds in the world found on all continents except Antarctica.  They are also one of the most common birds that can usually be seen on one's travels around the world depending on the season of course.  In 2007 when we were in Ukraine visiting relatives in one of the villages one of their buildings had a Barn Swallow's nest with young.  It was like being home.  The only difference was that the Eurasian subspecies is very pale, almost white, breasted whereas the American version is tawny with the male actually being orange breasted.  No matter where, they are one of our friendliest and most confiding birds.