Nature Canada

Nature Canada kicks off work to save Ontario’s swallows

Grassland birds and aerial insectivores (birds that feed on insects while airborne, including swallows and martins) are two of the most rapidly declining groups of birds in Canada.  Recently, I joined Ted Cheskey (Naturalist Director, Nature Canada) and Aric McBay (Membership Development & Special Projects Manager, National Farmers Union) on a tour of three organic farms in the Kingston area to learn more about the ways farmers are helping (or could help) these vulnerable bird populations. This tour was our first taste of fieldwork for Nature Canada’s exciting new project − with funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation − aimed at helping Ontario’s declining populations of swallows.

Our first visit was to Ironwood Organics in Athens, where we met with Mary Wooding and Ayla Fenton, who described several of Ironwood’s practices aimed at supporting species-at-risk, while also promoting sustainable agriculture. One of their major initiatives involves delaying their haying operations until mid-July. This is done to protect species like the Bobolink and Eastern meadowlark (both listed as Threatened under Schedule 1 of Canada’s Species At Risk Act), who often nest on the ground in the grasslands.

Early hay harvesting adds additional stress to nesting grassland birds, who are more at risk of being impacted directly (i.e. crushed or trampled) or indirectly (i.e. more exposed to predators) from harvesting equipment.

In addition to their delayed haying practices, Ironwood also protects vulnerable species on their property by reserving 14 acres of their land exclusively for grassland bird habitat (their ‘biodiversity field’), managing old barns for the benefit of Barn Swallows (another Threatened species in Canada) and maintaining a detailed index of all types of biodiversity that they find on their farm. Their hay and biodiversity fields are very close to the barns, allowing easy access for parent swallows looking to feed their hungry broods – during our tour we observed a great variety of insects in their fields, including the Giant Swallowtail butterfly. Ayla also told us about how the field comes alive at night in June with the magical aerial dances of fireflies: research has shown that the presence of fireflies is a reliable indicator of good overall environmental health[1].

Watch Ayla discuss the importance of sustainable, organic agriculture on Ironwood’s new bee colony!

Our next two visits – to Patchwork Gardens in Battersea and to Sonset Farm in Inverary – were also very exciting. Both of these farms, like Ironwood, manage their agricultural practices in ways to support the natural wildlife on their land. At Patchwork and Sonset, we took tours through some of their barns, all of which supported several Barn swallow nests. Both Patchwork and Sonset ensure that their barn doors and loft windows are open during Barn swallow breeding season: these access points allow safe entry and exit for these swallows to/from their nests, and ensure that barns have adequate ventilation in order to prevent nest overheating and dehydration.

Ian Stutt (Co-founder, Patchwork Gardens) and Aric McBay (National Farmers Union) in front of Patchwork’s newly re-outfitted storage barn (and a Barn swallow paradise!) – photo: Ted Cheskey

In short, our trip to visit local farms was exciting and informative. We learned about some of the incredible practices farmers are already employing to protect at-risk populations, and we also discussed new ideas that could be implemented on more farms in the future. One major discussion point that will need to be addressed further in the future relates to the use of herbicides and pesticides (especially neonicotinoids) to control invasive species on farmlands. While all three farms we visited were certified organic (no herbicides or pesticides are used at all), all farmers we spoke with expressed concern that these toxic chemicals could be one of the major causes of swallow decline in Ontario.

One thing is clear: there is much more work to be done to rescue the declining populations of aerial insectivores and grassland birds in Ontario. That is why it is very important to continue collaborating with local farmers and farming organizations (like the National Farmers Union) in order to develop and learn more about other beneficial and best practices that will directly benefit these species on farms all across Canada.

1] Chow AT, Chong JH, Cook M, White D. 2014. Vanishing fireflies: a citizen-science project promoting scientific inquiry and environmental stewardship. Sci. Educ. Civic Engag. 6(1):23-31.

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