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Nature Canada kicks off work to save Ontario’s swallows
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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!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=xfMEQZf3vUE
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. [caption id="attachment_37810" align="aligncenter" width="960"] 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[/caption]
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.

Our voices were heard! Barn and Bank Swallows are going to be protected by government
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Our voices were heard! Barn and Bank Swallows are going to be protected by government

This blog was written by Pierre Sadik, our Senior Advisor, Species at Risk. After many years of silence and delay the federal government appears to have heard our voice and the voicesImage of Barn Swallow of others in the conservation community who have been calling for the listing of Barn and Bank Swallows under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Hundreds of you sent letters or signed our petition to the Environment Minister and she has listened and finally, after considerable delay, moved to protect Barn and Bank Swallows. The government has given formal notice that these majestic little birds are going to be listed as 'threatened’ under SARA. This will begin to offer them some protection as the government must, under the Act, start the process of preparing a plan for the recovery of these species across the country. Nature Canada will be keeping a watchful eye on government to ensure that it acts as quickly as possible and takes the steps that scientists and naturalists have identified as necessary to stop the precipitous four decade decline of these once ubiquitous birds. We will also continue to press governments on other species of swallow, including the Purple Martin, which is likewise showing worrying signs of population decline in eastern Ontario and southern Quebec. Together, we can make continue to sure our voices are heard just as we did for the Barn and Bank Swallow!

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The Barn Swallow
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The Barn Swallow

[caption id="attachment_23299" align="alignleft" width="150"]Image of Valerie Assinewe Valerie Assinewe,
Guest Blogger[/caption] In this month’s Nature Canada calendar photo, an exhausted swallow rests after its long migration from the wintering grounds in South America. Its journey may not be over; while the swallows have returned to southern Canada, the migration continues for those returning to areas further north. As you await your first sighting of these agile fliers, the following information may add to your anticipation. Where do they live? The Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) live in open habitats across Canada south of the treeline—in fields, parks, roadway edges, marshes, meadows, ponds, and coastal waters. It has become our neighbour, nesting under the eaves or inside sheds, barns, bridges and other structures. What do they look like? The Barn Swallow is a medium-sized songbird—15–19 cm in length and 17–20 g in weight—with steely blue back, wings (29–32 cm wingspan) and tail, and rufous to tawny underparts. The blue crown and face contrast with the cinnamon-colored forehead and throat.  Males are more boldly colored than females. [caption id="attachment_23046" align="alignright" width="275"]Image of a Barn Swallow Photo of a Barn Swallow[/caption] What do they eat? Barn Swallows forage and feed on the fly—literally! They eat a variety of flying insects, especially flies (including houseflies and horse flies), beetles, wasps, wild bees, winged ants, and true bugs. They also feed on moths, damselflies, grasshoppers, and other insects, and a few spiders and snails, and occasionally eat a few berries or seeds. How do they reproduce? They are usually monogamous during the breeding season, but extra-pair copulations are common, and new pairs form each spring. Polygyny sometimes occurs. Both members of the pair build the nest, incubate the 3–7 eggs for 12–17 days, and feed the young. The young leave the nest 17–24 days after hatching.  There may be one or two broods per year. Barn vs Cliff Swallow? These two species are very similar in appearance. Here are some tips to help in identification:

  • The Barn Swallow has a slimmer body and a deeply forked tail; the Cliff Swallow is stockier and has a squared tail.
  • When foraging together, the Barn Swallow skims closer to the ground or water; the Cliff Swallow flies much higher.
  • While several Barn Swallows may nest near each other, they do not form dense colonies like the Cliff Swallows.
  • Barn Swallows create a long, heavy, vertical nest, built of mud pellets. By contrast, the Cliff Swallow mud nest is shaped like a hollow gourd, with a hole for the parents to enter and the young to look out.
More stuff
  • Although the Barn Swallow is the most abundant and widely distributed swallow species in the world, its population has declined in Canada since 1970. In 2011, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada listed the Barn Swallow as threatened. In 2012, Ontario added the Barn Swallow to their threatened list. Since these assessments, several initiatives have sought to reverse the decline in Barn Swallow population through habitat improvement and access to nesting sites.
  • Older siblings help build the nest, incubate the eggs, and guard the young, although they generally do not feed the young.
  • Barn Swallows can survive up to 11 years, but rarely live more than 4 years.
The spectacle of the Barn Swallow as it turns and twists in pursuit of flying insects is one of NatureWatchers favourite sights of the season. It is a bird however that has a declining population. You can help get the Barn Swallow officially listed as threatened by signing our petition today!
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Saved by Popular Demand?
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Saved by Popular Demand?

[caption id="attachment_22697" align="alignleft" width="150"]Image of Stephen Hazell Stephen Hazell
Director of Conservation
and Legal Counsel[/caption] A new day may have dawned for Canada’s species at risk. Nature Canada is very pleased that Prime Minister Trudeau  has directed Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, to “enhance protection of Canada’s endangered species” as a top priority. Implementing the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) is critical to this work. Last week, Nature Canada and seven other nature groups wrote a joint letter to Minister McKenna outlining some of the pressing shortcomings in implementing SARA including:

  • Clearing up the backlog of  scientifically assessed species at risk  not yet declared to be legally at risk
  • Getting caught up in preparing Recovery Strategies for threatened and endangered species
  • Better supporting the work of  COSEWIC, the scientific advisory committee on species at riskImage of Barn Swallow
The previous federal government fell behind badly in legally listing species recommended for at risk status by COSEWIC. The backlog goes back four years, and includes more than 100 species, including Barn and Bank Swallows and the western Grizzly Bear population. Preparing recovery strategies for endangered, threatened and extirpated species at risk—including identification of critical habitat--is another priority. The preparation of recovery strategies needs to be an objective, scientific exercise to identify broad strategies to ensure species’ survival and recovery. You can save endangered and threatened species by encouraging the Minister and the new government to act by Popular Demand!

Here's how you can help today:

Please consider signing Nature Canada’s petition requesting that the Minister immediately list the Barn and Bank Swallows as threatened.

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To learn more about protecting endangered species, check out these news articles from the Ottawa Citizen: Triage in the wild: Is it time to choose which species live and which die out? Canada, once a global leader in conservation, is among the world’s biggest cheapskates when it comes to spending to save disappearing wildlife. To learn more about biodiversity targets, click here. Email Signup

Your voices have power – will you speak up again?
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Your voices have power – will you speak up again?

[caption id="attachment_16443" align="alignleft" width="150"]Eleanor Fast Eleanor Fast
Executive Director[/caption] Wildlife in Canada can’t speak for themselves, but we can! And the voices of our 55,000 members and supporters speaking up together is a powerful thing. We’ve seen that power recently. For example, in March I wrote about some of the work we’ve been doing as your Voice for Nature to increase protection of the Monarch butterfly throughout its range. Then hundreds of you signed a petition to the Minister of Environment demanding action. In July I was pleased to attend a meeting of the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation where it was announced that Monarch Butterfly conservation will be a key priority for environmental cooperation between Canada, the US and Mexico. Together we raised our voices and made a difference. Nature Canada will continue to work to be a voice for the Monarch butterfly. Now, we ask you to raise your voices again. This time for threatened Swallow species. Last month I wrote to the Minister of the Environment urging action to list Barn and Bank Swallows as threatened species under the Species at Risk Act. Can you believe that it is four years since the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) recommended these birds be listed and still there has been no action? This is urgent; their numbers are declining rapidly. You can read more about this here. It makes me sad to know that the government could have taken action four years ago to protect these Swallows and to ask for an assessment of others, and yet nothing has been done. When I speak with our Conservation Team about Nature Canada’s work on Swallows, particularly our Purple Martin project, we are all happy to be contributing to understanding and protection, but we know that if the government took action then even more could be done! We know that together our voices achieve results. Let’s be a Voice for Nature for the Swallows. We don’t know who the Minister of Environment will be after the Federal election, but let’s make sure that whoever it is, one of the first things in their inbox is a petition from Nature Canada members and supporters demanding action to protect these threatened species. I’ve already written a letter. Please will you join me and write your own. Or, even easier, simply sign our petition and we’ll ensure your voice is heard.

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