Friday, 11 August 2017

Radio Tagging Barn Swallows (Hirondelles rustiques)

09 August 2017

     Having installed our Motus tower at SpruceHaven several months ago we were very excited when the day finally arrived when we would attach radio tags to ten Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica)

     Greg Miller, a research scientist with Environment Canada, and the lead figure in this project, arrived to install the tracking devices and he wasted no time unloading his car to get started on the task at hand.

     The device is incredibly light, weighing a mere 0.29 of a gram. When you put it in your hand you can barely even detect it is there. Here is Dave holding one. The loop is the little harness that will hold the tag onto the bird, until it degrades and falls off several weeks hence.

     Mary and Judy had come out as observers, but wasted no time in rendering whatever help was needed. 

     More than one pair of hands makes the work of assembling the nets used to trap the birds much easier.

     In fact it proved invaluable to have Judy and Mary there when the batteries on Greg's scale failed, rendering it impossible for him to weigh the birds. Without a moment's hesitation they jumped in their car, scale in hand, to head into town to get replacement batteries. They were back in short order, functioning scale in hand, and their prompt action saved the day!
     Heather and Daina, the two dedicated young biologists who devote so much time to our mist netting operation, and also helped us to monitor the swallow nests throughout the season, actually arranged to get a little time off work to come and help.

     I am not quite sure what everyone was focused on here but it was sufficiently important to channel everyone's attention in the same direction.

     Heather and Daina not only work hard with dedication and finesse, they also obviously enjoy every minute of what they do.

     The pleasure in being around these young people is immeasurable and is a source of constant joy for me. As I get older I know that there are new champions for wildlife following in our footsteps, with knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment to fuel their passion for the preservation of ecosystems, where wild creatures are valued as an integral and essential component of a healthy environment.

       It was a major help to have two extra bodies to retrieve the birds from the mist nets, leaving Greg to proceed with banding, measuring and equipping the birds with their tags.

     Greg did the final calibrations on his equipment  and checked each tag to ensure that everything was functioning properly before installing them on the birds.

     We found Greg to be a very agreeable fellow and were grateful that he took the time to explain everything he did and answer any and all questions we had.

     Here he is measuring the wing on one of the birds.

     Mary and Judy were taking a lot of the pictures for us and had me pose with Daina and then Heather to record the confluence of the young and the beautiful with the old and not so beautiful!

     We were able to trap the birds very quickly as they flew into the net in the gloom of the barn and all were banded, even the ones not receiving radio tags.

     Do you get the impression that Heather is a tad engrossed in this operation and that Greg is ever patiently explaining everything?

     Here a tag is being installed onto an adult bird.

     It was incredible to me how quickly and smoothly Greg accomplished this. It seemed to be done in no time at all, and I found it more than a little whimsical that an essential tool in this arsenal of high tech apparatus was an old-fashioned crochet hook!
     Voilà! The operation is complete.

     Complete details on weights, measurements, age, moult, tag number etc. are recorded for each bird and Daina was first in line to help.

     We tagged five birds at SpruceHaven and then moved over to the colony at  the second farm we have monitored to tag five birds there. Photography was very difficult there as the barn is quite dark, and we deliberately left the lights off so that the net would not be visible to the swallows. 
     The horses were not happy about being escorted out of the barn since their desire for attention rivals a pet dog. At one point Heather stood guard to keep them outside. Had they been able to re-enter they would certainly have destroyed our net.

     Greg was anxious to position the net exactly the way he wanted it.

     The birds were processed quickly and a good day's work was completed in near record time.

     This operation really represents the culmination of all we have done to try to help these endangered aerial insectivores. We hope that the tags will help us to understand how land cover composition and land use practices influence the diet and condition of fledglings. Valuable information should be gleaned on where adults and juveniles move post breeding, and when adults and juveniles initiate migration. Little is known of the routes Barn Swallows take as they leave the province and head south and we should be able to add measurably to our knowledge of this phenomenon.
     I owe a great debt of appreciation to Greg Mitchell for his kindness and professionalism, to Heather and Daina for being determined to participate at all costs, and to my dear friends Judy and Mary who are always there to encourage and assist. And of course, none of this would have been possible without the support of cooperative landowners, and the substantial financial commitment of Dave Westfall. I salute Environment Canada for its commitment to the welfare of endangered wildlife.
     It has been an honour for me, in fact a life time achievement, to have been permitted to engage in this venture. I am humbled by the birds and their epic struggle for survival, and for the friendships built up with fellow swallow enthusiasts. 
     It is ironic that in the midst of this ultra high-tech operation, I came across a simple poem about Barn Swallows, composed by Vera Ernst McNicol, before 1956. Vera was a well known local area poet, in a day when poetry was still read by many and she published several volumes. She actually lived in the farm house on the Fourth Line of Peel Township where Miriam was raised before Miriam's parents acquired it, and some of the poems are dedicated to Miriam's father and mother, Eli and Vera Bauman.
     Vera's poems are not the kind to win Pulitzer prizes, or provoke highbrow discussions of form, structure, purpose and philosophy; rather they represent the poetic equivalent of folk art, highly expressive, but based in a simple, down-to-earth tradition. I find this poem quite charming in its own way, and it certainly reflects the joy I feel when the first swallows return in the spring. I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I did.

The Little Barn Swallow
The winter months seemed lonely
Without the swallows in the shed.
With the first approach of autumn
These little birds had fled,
But the warm, coaxing April breezes
Recalled these harbingers of spring,
And now gaily in the barnyard
You may see them on the wing.

Back and forth above our heads
These swallows glide and skim.
Down to the ground they slowly dip,
Then rise again with vim.
At times they light upon a wire,
Big, black beads upon a string,
But they seldom linger long
To idly sit and swing.

They have urgent work to do,
These busy little swallows.
They carry material for their nest,
From hillsides and from hollows.
High on a beam it is fastened, 
This quaint little cradle of mud,
And four tiny eggs are laid inside
When the trees begin to bud.

One swallow hovers close by,
While the other searches for food,
Darting here and there in the meadow,
She swiftly returns to her brood.
The baby swallows grow quickly,
And the nest is empty once more.
Proudly they flit with their parents, 
In and out of the cow stable door.


  1. Great to see you! We Bloggers often remain in the background :) Nice to see this important work being carried out!

  2. Lovely Swallows being tracked.

  3. I hope that all the work is worthwhile and it serves to give you the information you need. Interesting photos and good to see you David. Love the verse. Have a good Sunday Diane

  4. A very valuable explanation and description of your project David. It is really surprising how we often know so little about even our supposed common species. The problem of changing land use is one that we all share. I'm looking forward to reading some of your results.

    1. Thanks, Phil. I especially appreciate words of encouragement from you.

  5. I share your delight with that charming poem, David.

    That was a very well orchestrated banding/tagging session - I'm impressed! I hope that all goes well for these very special birds, and that useful data is collected.

    With my love to you Miriam - - - Richard

    1. Just noticed - that should have been "to you AND Miriam". Don't want you getting the wrong idea!!!

    2. Shucks, she was getting excited!

  6. Hello David, great project and I wonder what the data wil tell you about their where abouts in Wintertime. Great to see a capture of you as well.
    Take care,
    Regards Roos

  7. I loved the poem!
    The enthusiasm of the youngsters is great to see and it is very infectious.
    I should imagine the little harness is made of someting like a soluble suture. Fantastic what they can do nowadays.
    Have a lovely Sunday :)

  8. Morning David, its good to see such good work going on in various parts of the globe,and to see the younger folk getting involved. Thank you for dropping in on mine very kind of you, we'r not as worried about the Marsh Harriers(although they may be persecuted to some extent) its the Hen Harrier that is heavilly culled by the hunting and shooting fraternity. Thanks agaain and take care, Gordon.

  9. Hello David, thanks for explaining the project. You had a great group of workers too. I love the poem, very pretty. Happy Birding, enjoy your day and new week ahead!

  10. Wonder where they'll end up this winter?

  11. What an interesting procedure.
    I was always impressed by the swiftness of the swallows.

  12. Absolutely fascinating. Thank you for sharing this David, I enjoyed it very much.