Thursday, 15 June 2017

Healthy Babies

     Kevin and I are now occupied several days a week banding nestling Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica and we are thrilled with the very healthy cohort of youngsters we have so far encountered. They have all presented very robust weights, and following the protocol submitted by Bird Studies Canada we have checked for parasites in the nests, and so far every nest has been clean.
     To date we have only banded birds from our second colony where the presence of horses creates a substantial population of large dipterans. I have seen adults delivering very large flies to their young and this perhaps contributes to their good health and high weights. Shortly we will begin banding nestlings at SpruceHaven where the barn is closed and there are no livestock. It will be informative to compare weights of birds banded at the same age to see whether the Sprucehaven birds are on average smaller.
     When we retrieve the birds from the nests we use a shoe box lined with a piece of fabric, courtesy of Miriam. A clean piece of material is used for each nest so that any potential for cross contamination is eliminated. Since these healthy youngsters tend to squirm around quite a bit, we place them in a little plastic cup to weigh them, zeroing out the weight of the cup of course.

     The dogs are a reliable audience but on a hot day they are content to simply lie around on the cool concrete floor.

     This was the clutch from the first nest we banded yesterday.

     Kevin handles these tiny creatures with a care that would do a human father proud. The welfare of the birds is our primary concern and we treat the babies in as delicate a manner as we can.

     Once deposited in a cup they are ready for the weigh-in and they keep still for at least a moment while we complete that task.

     The parent birds watch the whole operation quietly and are back to feeding their young almost as soon as we have returned them to the nest. Before we leave we check around every nest to make sure that no youngsters have wriggled free.

     The horses are eternally curious about everything that is going on and are happy to have a ladder to chew on and a couple of friendly humans to pet them.

     We have to make sure they don't nudge the ladder while we are standing on it. In a shoving match between one of us and a 500kg horse the horse is going to win every time!
     As one might well imagine, readily available horse hair is used by the Barn Swallows to line their nests, but it can sometimes create a problem when the young birds become entangled in it. More than once I am sure we have saved the life of a nestling that was hopelessly bound up in horse hair.

     Kevin carefully extracts the birds from the nest while I hold the ladder.

     He is a study in concentration.

     And we carefully replace the birds in the nest as quickly as possible after we have processed them.

     On to nest No. 41 and a repeat of the same process.

     In no time at all they are at the banding station.

     And Kevin proceeds as before.

     This whole exercise is very satisfying and we will be back at it again tomorrow morning at 06:00. Kevin, poor fellow, still works full time and so we band at lunch time or in the early morning. That's dedication if you ask me.
     Before completing this post I would like to share with you a story about bird banding recently recounted to me by Greg Michalenko. Greg is a retired professor from the University of Waterloo, and is one of those very special mentors who leave a lifelong impression on his students. I have talked to several people who were fortunate enough to enjoy his leadership and inspirational style and that sentiment has been universally expressed.

     In his own words, here is Greg's narrative:

     I know the thrill of netting a bird with a band. I used to do a field course on the Bruce in late August and included a visit to the banding operation at the south end of the park. On one visit the students went out with the net checkers and returned to the banding hut. The bander, a very gentle and shy man from Québec, went through his measurements and attentions to each socked bird in turn and let them go. It came to the last bird of the morning, a Black-and-white Warbler; it already had a band. He said, "I can tell by the number that it's one of ours but will have to check with the record on the computer files for specifics." He went into his computer. His back was towards us. Then he swivelled his chair and sat facing us with a strange look on his face. Eventually he spoke in a very low voice."This bird was banded here eight years ago. It winters in the Caribbean. That means it has made sixteen passages of three thousand kilometres each. It weighs only eleven grams, less than half an ounce. Yet it has flown the equivalent of going right around the planet."

     The students were hushed, amazed. I realized that I was witnessing one of those very rare learning moments of great depth. The afternoon was scheduled for swimming, hiking, exploring. The students were unusually quiet all day, but not subdued. They had been charmed, a great truth had been revealed. 
     When I tucked into my tent that night I thought, "Teaching can be so rewarding."
     In life you have many experiences, meet many people, and once in a rare while, if you are very fortunate, you meet someone who leaves an imprint. Greg Michalenko is one of those people. 


  1. I like Greg's narrative, David. Wonderful photos. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Beautiful images, banding little ones and the Warbler, lovely job.

  3. Interesting story about Barn Swallows. Their young are very cute :). Greetings!

  4. Wow what a fabulous story about the Black-and-white Warbler, amazing to say the least of it.
    Glad to hear that the parents of the Barn Swallow youngsters go straight back to feeding when you return the babies to the nest.
    Have a good day Diane

  5. Hi David and another interesting post, those young Barn Swallows look so delicate and the story about the Black-and-white Warbler, it never fails to impress as to how far these little birds fly, all the best to you both, John

  6. Interesting to see the way you all handle the babies with such great care. I like the part you mentioned about the shoving match between the horse and the ladder. I guess the horses want some attention. Interesting and impression narrative concerning the Black and White Warbler. Its a very pretty and amazing bird.

  7. Very interesting to see the photos and the way all is done.

  8. Hope they grow up to be healthy adults...........

  9. I must say I am impressed by the thouroughness of your operation David. from the numbering of the nests down to the indivdual weighing, it all looks highly organised with great care taken to safeguard the birds, adults nnd youngsters.

    With that numbering you also seem to have a healthy population to go at. I also used to find that where there animals were about, there would be swallows. Like you say, both food and nesting material.

    1. Thanks a lot, Phil. Coming from you we especially appreciate the compliment.

  10. Nice that the swallows do so well David.
    My compliments for all the work that you do for it.
    Beautiful photo series.
    Greetings Tinie

  11. I used to take students to the same banding station. Amazing experience!

  12. Thank you for sharing the incredible journey of those tiny birds traveling all those miles. That is truly amazing. I loved this post David, beautifully told and well captured with these wonderful photos. Thank you so much!

    1. Lovely comment, Denise. Thank you very much.

  13. Hola David, me encantan las Golondrinas, son sociables y fascinantes. Buen trabajo. Saludos.

  14. Hello, what an amazing post. I would be scared to handle the baby birds. I am surprised the parents can be so calm while the banding is going on with their babies. Happy birding, enjoy your weekend!

  15. So good to see and read this post. The time and care you take, so rewarding.
    I was quite surprised that the parent birds seemed to wait so patiently and calmly.

    All the best Jan

  16. They are really still very small swallows.
    Very good that you've held the ladder because you do not think he's falling over the stairs! Rings, measuring and weighing. They are being closely monitored :-)
    Very special also that you had a bird that was less than 8 years old.
    This bird has a lot of flying hours on its way.

    Sincerely, Helma