Swallows finally set free

Swallows finally set free

In July, the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center
admitted 18 tiny (they all fit into two small margarine bowls used
for

nests

) nestling cliff swallows after a homeowner washed their nests
down, possibly without realizing that the nests were inhabited.
In July, the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center admitted 18 tiny (they all fit into two small margarine bowls used for “nests”) nestling cliff swallows after a homeowner washed their nests down, possibly without realizing that the nests were inhabited. Not only is it a federal offense to remove occupied nests of migratory birds, it was also tragic loss to the area where they were located.

The adults of a cliff swallow colony can consume 800 flying insects – such as flies, beetles and mosquitoes – a day just for their survival, and need to capture an equal amount or more to feed their offspring. Now multiply that by 18 and you have more than 150,000 insects a day that are flying free, multiplying and bugging us. Shoo fly!

For the first few weeks, the orphaned swallows needed to be hand fed a complex nutritional concoction every hour for proper growth. Next, they learned to eat live insects. Because there was no way that the humans at WERC could run around with bug nets trying to collect 150,000 flying insects a day, the insects and supplements had to be purchased – at a cost of more than $45 per bird.

Once the babies fledged and could eat on their own, they transferred to the flight aviary for three weeks. The experience demonstrated survival of the fittest – seven of the swallows died, but the other 11 proved they were able to survive outdoors and to catch their own food. Since swallows are aerial foragers and eat almost exclusively “on-the-fly”, bowls of live mealworms were attached to the walls and branches in aviary. Over-ripe fruit was placed in the enclosure to attract fruit flies so that the swallows could swoop down and catch them – the swallows’ long, pointed wings give them amazing speed and maneuverability.

It was important to release the swallows before winter migration, which could be as far south as Brazil. So in early September, the 11 swallows were let free in a riparian area in Morgan Hill, a prime swallow habitat where there is an abundance of all kinds of juicy bugs to catch and plenty of mud to use when they’re ready to build nests to raise their own families next spring.

The species is best known for its famous spring migration to the California mission of San Juan Capistrano, where large colonies of up to several hundred pairs build their nests every year, much to the delight of bird watchers who come from around the world to witness the awesome sight.

Contrary to their name, the swallows nest not just under ledges on cliffs, but more often under house and barn eaves, and underneath bridges and highway overpasses. Colonies of swallows, ranging from several hundred to several thousand, make their pouch-shaped nests from tightly-packed mud pellets.

This sprawl of nests above makes for a very messy situation below – the end results of bug-eating babies and adults that splatter on the walkways and porches of business, schools and homes, much to the consternation of the caretakers of those buildings. But unless one has a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, given only if the nesting birds are causing an immediate health or safety hazard, it’s illegal to destroy nests with eggs or babies in them. Before and after nesting/baby season, which typically lasts from Feb. 15 to Sept. 1, you can wash or knock down the mud nests. This may take several attempts and you’ll need to remove all the mud since the birds can be persistent and will return year after year, just like the Capistrano swallows.

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Want to have fun and help us save wildlife? You’re invited to the Wildlife Fest, WERC’s 15th annual BBQ-Auction Fundraiser from noon to 3 p.m., Oct. 23, at the Morgan Hill Buddhist Community Center. Original artwork, raptor handling lessons, movie memorabilia and fantastic gift baskets galore are just some of the exciting items being offered at the live and silent auctions. WERC’s educational animal team (hawk, owls, falcons, turkey vulture and woodpecker) will make a personal appearance so you can meet them up close. There will be fun activities and gifts for the kids, plus unusual raffle prizes. For details, go to www.werc-ca.org.

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