Sunday, May 13, 2007

Ecological Consultation and the Swallows

A few weeks ago I arrived early to a brainstorming meeting for a child care center at a community college near Yosemite National Monument. I stood waiting inside the brand new Learning Resources Center when suddenly a flurry of movement drew me to the second storey windows to see the commotion. Outside there were possibly a hundred or more cliff swallows busily making their mud nests under the eve of the building. I watched mesmerized for a few moments, and began taking pictures. The sound of all those birds calling to their mates was loud, and I noted with amazement how rare it is these days to have the sounds of animals rise above the cacophony of humans and their activities, even in a remote place such as this campus. The nests were still small, just patches on the walls, occupied in turn with one mate while the other rushed off to some unknown location to collect mud. Upon return it sometimes took a few passes before the swallow could land properly on the little stub and add more mud to it. It's amazing that the swallows have enough energy after all that work to raise next year's flock, but once the work is done they return and reuse the nests year after year.
I lost time as I stood there watching those swallows, until a man walked up and said quietly, "Look at the mess they're making,"
I turned to him and smiled. He was right, there was mud all over the sidewalk, the eves, and the windows. "They're beautiful, " I say.
Just then the moderator of our meeting walked up and we entered the room. She commented that it breaks her heart that the maintenance crews knock the nests off to try and get rid of the swallows because they make such a mess.
I felt myself recoil. I was here at the meeting as the Ecological Consultant, invited by the architect to help make the child care center project environmentally friendly. I reminded myself I had a job to do, and now was not the time to get upset. As the meeting came under way my mood was elevated by the efficiency with which the moderator laid out the session, and by the responses we were getting from faculty and staff. They really had done their homework, and were dedicated to creating a facility that nurtured both children and the surrounding habitat on campus.
By the time I returned to the subject of the swallows after our meeting, I had started to believe that there could be a solution to the problem. The man I'd talked to earlier turned out to be the director of management at the college, and I told him that swallows are incredibly valuable because their main food source is mosquitoes. He was surprised. They're an asset in the wrong place, I told him. He asked me what I could suggest to do.
I thought for a moment. Then I told him that the swallows are getting the mud from some place out of the site of the building, most likely from the edge of the reservoir nearby. "Find out where they're getting the mud, and put up a structure that imitates the wall and eves of this building. It doesn't have to be elaborate, just provide shelter and easy access to their building materials."
"Will it work?" He asked, sincerely interested.
I point out that they're spending money on knocking down the nests, and money on spraying mosquitoes, so it would be worth the effort to come up with a better solution. He nods, smiling.
The next day I have an email from the moderator. She's heard that the swallows eat mosquitoes, and that there could be a solution to having them on campus. She's begun gathering support to try and relocate them. Over the next few hours, I receive several emails from others on campus as support for the swallows grows.
Whether the relocation works, we've yet to find out. I've talked to people since who have different theories about why cliff swallows seem to prefer buildings to their cliff sides. Some think it's diminishing habitat, while others have pointed out that it could be the thermal advantage of buildings for incubating eggs. One thing is for certain- when a shift has begun on campus, and what was once thought to be a nuisance is now being seen as an asset, everyone wins.
At the end of my day its victories like this that make me proud to be an ecologist.

learn more about Cliff Swallows

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