Survey: Swallow populations & farming practices in Southern Ontario

Nature Canada is working with the National Farmers’ Union, ALUS and other farming/rural groups to help Ontario’s declining swallow populations along Lake Ontario & Lake Erie. This project to Save Our Swallows is supported by a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. We are interested in learning more from farmers and rural landowners about these species on their properties, as well as what people may already be doing to help this declining group of birds. This information will inform our strategies to help these birds. The survey should take approximately 15-30 minutes to complete, and participants who complete the survey will be entered into a draw to win a T-14 model Purple Martin nesting condominium (includes mounting pole and installation), valued at $1000.

For any questions about the project, please contact Ted Cheskey at tcheskey@naturecanada.ca

Save Our Swallows: A collaborative effort   

A central aspect of Nature Canada’s species protection work includes the launch of our Save Our Swallows campaign in 2018, graciously funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation. In response to Canada’s rapid decline of swallow populations, our campaign aims to mobilize communities and constituencies to help recover populations of these beautiful and once numerous birds.
 
One of the ways we are doing this is by identifying and monitoring post-breeding swallow roosts that form in August along the southern Great Lakes.  All six swallow species are declining rapidly in Ontario. Nocturnal roost sites are safe places near abundant food sources (like the Great Lakes Coastal zone) where large numbers of these birds spend several weeks. Roosts provide important stop-over habitat between the breeding season and the swallows’ migrations to their over-wintering grounds in Central and South America.
 

We are organizing roost monitoring with the collaboration of citizen scientists, who monitor roosts within their catchments.  Some roosts are so big they show up for a brief moment each morning in August as a donut-shaped image on weather radar as the birds leave their nocturnal roosts each day just before dawn to go foraging for insects!

 

Swallow roost at Point Pelee Ontario in mid August  from NOAA Cleveland radar

While two species of swallows are listed in Canada’s and Ontario’s species at risk legislation, the Purple Martin is not one of them. Yet, it has lost about 92% of its Ontario population since 1970.  So we want to help this species by focusing on improving their nesting habitats.  East of the Rockies, Purple Martin nests exclusively in human provided housing. Many people in rural landscapes install housing units on their properties, however, being a Purple Martin steward doesn’t means more than providing housing. Maintenance of housing is essential. Without implementing proper management techniques, a Purple Martin steward could actually be harming their colony.

Purple Martin adult and young

Purple Martin adult and young

Nature Canada is distributing 30 Purple Martin housing units to stewards across southern Ontario to replace substandard housing that have become a liability. We are ensuring that landlords make a long-term commitment to follow best practices in caring for the colonies. Among those landlords is NFU-O Special Projects Manager Aric McBay, who received four housing units and reported a pair of Purple Martins within the first month of installation!

Another part of our work to help Purple Martins is to improve our knowledge on their movements and survival through science.  We are collaborating with Dr. Kevin Fraser of the University of Manitoba to place MOTUS telemetry tags on Purple Martins at their colonies (adults and young)  so that we can better understand their movements once they leave the colony.  In particular we are interested in learning how they move between roosts and what threats they might encounter along the way. Dr. Fraser and his PhD student, Saeedeh Bani-Assadi, are helping us answer some of the key mysteries related to the movements and migration of Purple Martins, and we are very grateful for this collaboration.

Last but not least, we continue to work with rural residents and farming organizations to improve environmental conditions for swallows in rural landscapes. Every spring, swallows return to breed in rural areas of Ontario. We cherish our partnership with farmers and rural residents as they are the key players in protecting our beloved birds. It is them who have the power to implement the beneficial practices that we have compiled and shared, and it is through the implementation of these practices that we have a real chance at recovering their faltering populations.  

Partnership with NFU

Our work with NFU farmers across southern Ontario has been greatly beneficial, not only for us to promote beneficial practices, but also for the swallows, whose survival chances rely on the implementation of these practices by farmers. We are very proud of our work with the NFU farmers and are eager to share details with you about these successful events.

On June 22, local farmers from the area around Athens, ON (near Kingston) attended the Ironwood Organics farm to participate in a demonstration farm event. Hosted by owners Mary and Chris Wooding, the purpose of the event was to highlight beneficial organic agriculture and swallow stewardship practices to the more than 30 attendees, which included several NFU members. The event kicked off with nest box building for Tree Swallows, and the opportunity for the guests to take their finished nest boxes home to install on their properties. Mary and Chris led guided tours around their property to demonstrate their organic practices and native plant diversity, including a large “pollinator” field buzzing with insect life! Attendees were treated to dinner and informal conversation on the challenges that farmers face with stewardship practices, as well as sharing their passion for conservation. You can read more about the event by checking out Nature Canada’s blog here to learn more about what was discussed.

Lambton, Ontario (July 27)

Over 60 farmers and rural residents from Lambton County came out early Saturday morning, July 27, to attend the Save Our Swallows event at Sycamore Farm. Nature Canada’s Vanessa Fiore and Ted Cheskey teamed up with NFU-Lambton President and Sycamore farm owner Felicia Syer-Nicol, to promote stewardship practices that protect birds and other wildlife. The Lambton-Sarnia MPP Bob Bailey and Ontario Trillium Foundation volunteer Stephanie Rogers were also present to recognize the work being done on Felicia’s farm and the impact Save Our Swallows is having on rural communities. The event was a huge success as attendees got the chance to build nest boxes, take a tour around the property to learn about the stewardship practices being implemented, including the presence of a native plant garden to attract birds, and take home a healthy native, insect-attracting plant. Families had a great time with their kids and attendees marveling at the natural biodiversity on the property. Felicia and her family’s dedication to nature and wildlife conservation is inspiring.  We are excited to see how attendees will implement those same practices at their farms. You can read more about the event on our latest blog.

The SOS team is so grateful to have these opportunities to work with NFU members. From our past events and collaborations, we know that there numerous examples that demonstrate how profitable farming practices and ecological protection go hand-in-hand. Through our joint partnership, we can extend our reach to all farmers and rural residents across Ontario and promote conservation of our declining swallows. That being said, we need your help to continue extending this reach.

One goal our campaign is to increase the number of farmers and rural residents implementing beneficial practices to help our swallows.  To do this, we need to be able to communicate directly with individual farmers.  Our main way of connecting to farmers is through our farming survey. Through this survey, we learn about what type of farming you practice, what species of swallow inhabit your properties and the stewardship initiatives you implement on your farm to protect wildlife. More importantly, we want your feedback and suggestions to better understand which areas require attention to help the swallows. We have received a good percentage of our targeted reach, but need your help to attain our objective. Below is a link to our survey, please take 10-15 minutes of your time to fill it out and provide your email at the end so we can connect with you later on how you can help save our swallows!

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/VQDD8CL