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Bird haven at a crossroads: Swallows living in wildlife refuge barn at risk of coming down

  • Barn swallows fly in and out of a barn at the Fort River Division of the National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley on July 13. The barn remains on the site from the former Bri-Mar Stables. GAZETTE STAF KEVIN GUTTING

  • A barn swallows perches in the second story of a barn at the Fort River Division of the National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley on Friday, July 13, 2018. The barn remains on the site from the former Bri-Mar Stables. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • A barn swallow makes trips to and from its nest in a barn at the Fort River Division of the National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley on July 13. The barn remains on the site from the former Bri-Mar Stables. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ornithologist Mara Silver of Shelburne Falls specializes in barn and cliff swallows. She is photographed in the former Bri-Mar Stables barn at the Fort River Division of the National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley on Friday, July 13. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A barn swallow makes trips to and from its nest in a barn at the Fort River Division of the National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley on Friday, July 13, 2018. The barn remains on the site from the former Bri-Mar Stables. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • A barn from the former Bri-Mar Stables in Hadley, now part of the Fort River Division of the National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, is home to a population of barn swallows. Photograph taken on Friday, July 13. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Devin Straley of Leverett is studying the population of barn swallows at the Fort River Division of the National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley as a project for his senior year at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. Photo taken on Friday, July 13, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • A nest of barn swallow eggs is reflected in an illuminated mirror held by Devin Straley of Leverett, a rising senior at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, in the rafters of a barn at the Fort River Division of the National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley on Friday, July 13, 2018. The barn remains on the site from the former Bri-Mar Stables. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • A barn swallow perches near its nest in a barn at the Fort River Division of the National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley on Friday, July 13. The barn remains on the site from the former Bri-Mar Stables. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 25, 2018

HADLEY — Flying in and out of the large two-story barn off Moody Bridge Road, dozens of barn swallows fill the sky throughout the daylight hours.

Repeatedly making their way to nearby fields to capture a variety of insects, the small birds, with their distinctive forked tails and blue upper bodies, are a constant presence at the Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge during much of the spring and summer.

Inside the building they once shared with more than 40 horses, the barn swallows continue to tend to their young in the mud and grass nests they have built for them.

But as attractive as the building has proven to be for the birds, with its dark and cool interior, it’s possible the barn may be removed from the 260-acre site in the near future. The barn’s roof is covered with a large tarp to conceal a hole, and grass is taking root at its edges, and there is uncertainty about whether the building’s upkeep and preservation is a priority for federal funding. Local bird enthusiasts are concerned about the swallows’ fate.

“What makes this stable so unique is they are choosing to be here,” says Mara Silver, a Shelburne Falls ornithologist who has studied barn swallows and cliff swallows for the past 25 years. “This site is known for barn swallows by birders.”

Silver said she worries about losing the barn, once home to the 40-stall Bri-Mar Stables before its owners, Brian and Martha Zuckerman, sold the property to the federal government in 2009. She said its demise could mean destroying a viable habitat for a bird species already facing a population decline.

“This is a habitat for a bird that has some conservation issues,” Silver said.

The barn was home to a combined 70 broods over the two mating seasons this year, based on a count done by Devin Straley. Silver is an adviser to Straley, a student majoring in natural history and ecology at Sterling College in Vermont. Those numbers are evidence that the barn is a perfect habitat for the barn swallows, they say.

“This is definitely one of the biggest broods in Massachusetts, if not all of New England,” said Straley, who has been charting the success of each nest in the barn, as well as a neighboring arena building, since May.

Straley said that barn swallows depend on these types of structures to thrive. “The only way to conserve the species is to preserve the old barns,” Straley said.

Andrew French, project leader for the Conte Refuge, said he understands the passion for the barn swallows, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can’t commit to having the barn remain a permanent fixture.

“As far as the stables are concerned, it needs a lot in the way of repair if it’s to be brought back to a point where it is safe and secure,” French said.

In fact, shortly after the federal government purchased the 66.5 acres off Moody Bridge Road for $2.1 million nine years ago, following a prolonged effort to turn the property into a large-scale housing development, French sought a private entity to buy the building and move it off-site. Though that didn’t happen, French said in recent months some of the interior furnishings, including tongue-and-groove wooden doors, were removed and are being put to use at another stable.

“If other partners were involved it would help inform our decision for what direction to go forward,” French said. “Repairing the roof just now doesn’t make good business sense for us or anyone else.”

While no decisions have been made on whether the barn will remain, employees with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are using the adjacent building, a former arena and riding ring, as a place to work and to store equipment.

Silver said she and other birders, including members of the Hampshire Bird Club, appreciate the diversity of the landscape at the Hadley site, which features open fields, woodlands and a section of the Fort River, all of which can be viewed from a mile-long accessible nature trail that traverses the habitats. The trail is open year-round from sunup to sundown.

The open fields that the barn swallows like is also home to other birds, such as bobolinks that nest in the tall grass, field sparrows, meadowlarks and kestrels in kestrel boxes.

“This habitat is being used in an insanely high manner,” Silver said.

For barn swallows, the setting is perfect, as the foraging area is just a short flight from the barn, and they can easily gather mud and grass they use to build their nests inside the barn.

“Part of what makes this so unique is the extensive fields surrounding the stable,” Silver said.

The former stables may be ideal for them, Silver said, because it is cool and damp, and barn swallows long ago were cave dwellers. “You look inside here and it looks like a cave,” Silver said.

Straley notes that most of nests are attached to the light fixtures in the ceiling of the long hallways. The barn swallows often will place their nests close to the ceiling in a place that gives the eggs some protection.

For the first brood this year, Straley counted 36 active nests, with only two failing, meaning a 94 percent success rate. For the second, more recent brood, there are 34 active nests, three of which are still under construction. There are three to six eggs laid in each and eggs are hatching in at least one of the nests. The barn swallows’ breeding will be complete by mid-August and they will then begin their migration to the Southern Hemisphere in September.

Silver said barn swallows prefer to nest on their own, but in this case they are acting in a colonial manner. “For a non-colonial species, there sure are a lot of pairs here,” Silver said.

Population decline

Barn swallows are part of a larger group of birds known as aerial insectivores that appear to be dropping in numbers, Silver said.

Though the birds remain somewhat ubiquitous in the United States, she said some estimates indicate that 40 percent of the population in Massachusetts has been lost since the 1980s.

“So their decline has gone unnoticed,” Silver said.

In Canada, the barn swallow is already listed as being threatened.

Silver, who has studied swallows for 25 years, said there is uncertainty why this is happening.

One possibility is a smaller insect population that has been affected by pesticides. Another possibility is climate change.

“If you have a spate of cold and wet weather, they can die by starvation and interrupt their nesting,” Silver said.

Habitat loss is also having an impact, as more farmland throughout New England becomes reforested.

Still, no one has a specific answer. “We really don’t know what’s causing it,” Silver said.

It is hard to replicate the environment that will attract the birds and give them a place where they will nest. In Canada, kiosks have been tried, with limited success. Other people have tried shipping containers.

Even at the Fort River Division site, encouraging the swallows to use a portion of the arena building, once known as the “hot locker,” has met with only limited success. A few have built nests beneath shelves, but the building is brighter and more humid and may not prove popular with the birds.

Dave King, a research wildlife biologist with the USDA’s Forest Service Northern Research Station, said there is a lot of alarm that barn swallows are declining. If something can be done to protect the barn swallows and identify why the population is dropping, that might be worthwhile, he said.

“The big emphasis it to keep an eye on the common birds that are common so you don’t have to do something heroic later to save them,” King said.

The accessible trail at the Hadley site remains vital, French said, with a storybook that parents can use with their children that changes each month. Plans are also underway to build a 20-foot by 32-foot platform before the end of September, where the public will be able to better view the surrounding habitats.

Whatever happens to the barn, French said people should understand how decisions will be made.

“The use of the stables by the barn swallows is important to us, but being able to manage your financing efficiently and effectively, and making good business decisions, is where the struggle comes in,” French said.

King said there is a reason birders enjoy being at the Moody Bridge site to see barn swallows.

“They’re conspicuous at the place,” King said. “They’re a joy to watch, they’re aesthetically pleasing.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.