University doing its part to protect endangered barn swallows

By Greg Campbell Posted: August 1, 2019 9:30 a.m.

Dr. Stephen King has been the University’s own Dr. Dolittle lately. King is seen here with the coconut shell swallow’s nest that he and a friend built.
Dr. Stephen King has been the University’s own Dr. Dolittle lately. King is seen here with the coconut shell swallow’s nest that he and a friend built. Photo: University Advancement and Communications

When Stephen King was growing up in North Portal, Saskatchewan, barn swallows were a common sight. Throughout the spring and summer, they could be seen flying around barns and other outbuildings, on neighbouring farms, and in and around the village. There was even a pair that used to nest every year on the light fixture above the front door of the family home. 

“They can be rather messy, but my parents were okay with that and I spent a great deal of time watching the barn swallows fly around our yard because they are very graceful in flight,” says King, senior researcher to University of Regina President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Vianne Timmons. “They would dive-bomb pretty much everyone else who got near the nest, including our dogs, but they got used to my presence and grudgingly tolerated me.” 

King remembers seeing barn swallows on campus when he was an English student at the University some 30 years ago but admits he didn’t pay much attention to them at the time. That started to change when he became a staff member at the University 12 years ago. 

“Over the past dozen years or so, I have taken more notice of them since I spend many of my lunch breaks walking on the Dr. John Archer Library podium with my wife Cara, who works in the library.” 

In early July, after a particularly violent thunder and rain storm, King came upon a nest that had been dislodged from one of the library’s arches. All of the young swallows died in the fall save one, a nestling that King would christen Bernard. He picked up the injured swallow, took it home, and resuscitated him by giving it water with an eye dropper and feeding it crushed up ants.

Bernard

Bernard the Barn Swallow
recovering at Salthaven West
Wildlife Rehabilitation.
Photos: Courtesy of Salthaven
West Wildlife Rehabilitation

bird rehab

Bernard the Barn Swallow
hanging with friends at
Salthaven West Wildlife
Rehabilitation.

“I arranged for Salthaven West Wildlife Rehabilitation to pick up Bernard, and left a donation to help with his care,” recounts King. “Salthaven periodically sent me updates on his condition (including a few photos), and Bernard was successfully reintroduced to a colony of barn swallows near Edenwold on July 19.” 

King is well aware of the precarious status of the barn swallow – by some estimates their numbers in North American have declined 90 per cent in the past 40 years. The species was recently listed as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Scientists pin the decline in populations on habitat loss, climate change, and pesticide use. 

“I wasn't aware that they were at risk until a few years ago when a friend of mine who lives on a farm mentioned it to me,” King says. “They were so common when I was growing up that it was hard to believe.” 

Now King is doing his part to help ensure that the barn swallow population rebounds, at least around the University. He recalled seeing a CBC story about a group of people from around Grenfell, Saskatchewan that were making artificial nests for swallows from coconut shells. King and a friend built some of the coconut nests and a member of the University’s Facilities Management (FM) team fastened them to the south side of the library where they await next summer’s barn swallow families. 

“We are very fortunate to be located within an area of the city which is densely populated with wildlife,” says Travis Bullied, FM’s manager of Roads and Grounds. “Just another reason why FM was so happy to partner with Stephen by installing the coconut support shells for the swallows. We absolutely support and promote the protection of that which is so valuable to the quality of life on campus.” 

King says that swallows’ winter migration can take them as far away as Argentina – some 9,000 kilometres away. Typically, swallows return to the same nest year after year. Part of the reason is the effort that it takes a pair to build the nest. Made from mud pellets mixed with grass stems, it can take more than 1,000 separate trips to complete. 

Bullied says that swallows are just one of the species that call the campus home. 

“FM is very much an advocate for an open door policy when it comes to supporting wildlife, birds, and insects,” he says. “We are fortunate to adjoin the marsh portion of Wascana Lake which supports countless wildlife species from deer, fox, coyotes, and rabbits along with countless bird species ranging from migratory waterfowl, and songbirds, to native bird species. 

According to Bullied, the Dr. Lloyd Barber Academic Green is maintained as a pesticide- and herbicide-free zone. All fertilizers used on the Green are organically-based, creating a safe eco-environment for birds (including swallows), insects (including the campus bees), and freely roaming wildlife. As well, the humans who regularly enjoy the Green need not worry about the adverse effects of chemical treatments to the area. 

When he’s lunching at or walking along the library podium watching the swallows perform their daring aerial escapades, King often thinks about Bernard’s fate. He likes to imagine that he’s thriving with his new colony and that he will find a mate, build his own nest one day, and raise a family. As for the fate of the campus swallows, King remains optimistic. 

“I hope that more barn swallows nest on campus, because in their own small way, they add to everything I love about this place. They also reduce the number of mosquitoes that plague us. To think that these swallows migrate as far as southern South America and then return every year is pretty remarkable, and I hope they continue to do that. And I hope that people on campus take a few moments once in a while to watch these graceful birds putting on what is a very impressive aerobatic display over the Green.”