Barn swallows adapt to changes at Conte refuge

  • Andrew French, the wildlife refugee manager for the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley, talks about the Barn Swallow population. In the background is where the old barn was  where the Barn Swallows used to nest. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS


  • Barn Swallows at the entrance to the Boat House at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley,where the birds now nest and breed. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Barn Swallow nests in the Boat House of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley, wherethe birds now nest and breed. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Andrew French, the wildlife refugee manager for the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley, talks about the barn swallow population.

  • A live image taken from the camera in the boathouse of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley, where barn swallows now nest. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jennifer Lapis, the visitor services manager for the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley, watches as barn swallows fly in and out of the boathouse where the birds are now nesting. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Friday, July 24, 2020

HADLEY — Even though the former stables building where a colony of barn swallows nested in the spring and summer is gone, the birds continue to be a significant presence at the Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

One of the region’s largest known colonies of barn swallows has seemingly adapted by nesting inside a smaller building, known as the boathouse, which has been retrofitted through ongoing efforts since the stables were torn down in January.

“As we anticipated, we had what we feel was a very solid response from the barn swallows to the artificial nest structures,” said Andrew French, manager of the refuge.

Pointing to 162 contact points on the ceiling inside the dark and cool building, French said he had been confident that the birds would not only adapt, but tolerate the presence of people.

While the peak population in the stables was 40 pairs of barn swallows, there have been 34 pairs so far this spring and summer, based on a study and partnership between U.S. Fish and Wildlife and MassAudubon.

Of these, 30 pairs have nested inside the boathouse, also known as the hot walker building.

French explained that he attached small pieces of wood, metal and conduits to the ceiling for a potential of 162 nests. The ceiling was also divided into compartments to give the barn swallows more privacy for their nests.

As part of this project, staff also placed 36 seed nests, removed from the demolished stables building, to encourage the birds to use the boathouse. Half of these seed nests were cooked in a pizza oven at 225 degrees for 30 minutes to kill any parasites, while the remainder were attached to the contact points as is.

“They didn’t have a preference for cooked versus raw,” French said.

The success officials witnessed included one nest that was expanded by the barn swallows to provide more space for their young, and another where a new nest, made from mud and grass, was built alongside an existing one.

In the end, the nests produced 151 eggs, 150 of which hatched. All of these fledged, though five of the birds later died.

Cautious optimism

Though seemingly doing well in their new nesting site, Save Our Swallows, which had advocated for preservation of some or all of the stables due to the building’s large size and perfect cave-line conditions, cautions that it could take five years to know if this will work.

“We’re very pleased to hear 30 pairs of barn swallows nested in the hot walker room, but feel it’s a little too early to claim success,” said Mara Silver of Shelburne Falls, an ornithologist with an expertise in barn swallows.

Silver said she is interested to see whether the birds will continue to return and find the boathouse suitable, or whether this is an anomalous situation because many displaced birds returned this year and had no choice where to nest.

But French said he believes even more barn swallows would have nested on site if the spring hadn’t been historically cold. That delayed the arrival of barn swallows because they depend on insects.

“Anecdotally, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that that had an effect on when some birds nested this year,” French said.

In addition to the boathouse, there are other places where barn swallows nested, including on the north side of the site’s shop building, where various trailers and other equipment are stored, beneath the roof of a pavilion, and at the aerial insectivore observation exhibit, where a barn swallow nest is next to a nest used by tree swallows.

It is at this exhibit where visitors to the Fort River Birding and Nature Trail, which loops through the site, can watch what is happening in the boathouse. Five cameras broadcast live feeds, with three positioned on nests, one giving a view of the entire interior and another focused on a bat maternity box attached to the building.

Jennifer Lapis, visitor services manager for the federal agency, said the cameras recently captured video of a barn swallow feeding the young in one of 14 active nests.

For those who view the live footage, Lapis said they will be able to see different behaviors of the birds as they tend to the nests and fly in and out of the building.

French said the removal of the stables, even though they had been home to so many barn swallows, was a necessary change. “Demolition and habitat restoration is a big part of what we do as a refuge,” French said.

Other recent alterations to the site, which draws 30,000 visitors annually, have been the creation of two ponds, planting of pollinator gardens and installing simulated gourds for a purple martin colony.

Lapis said pop-up exhibits, safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, are beginning again for visitors. The refuge is also creating a universally accessible outdoors laboratory that can be used for instruction.

French said the largely grasslands habitat remains a perfect place to teach people about all sorts of “things with wings,” including barn swallows, bats and butterflies.

“The really important thing is to launch an aerial insectivore initiative in the Pioneer Valley and somewhat beyond as a way to connect people to nature,” French said.