Since mid-May, Jon Atwood has been collaborating with US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) managers at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge in a study aimed at monitoring Barn Swallow use of an abandoned stable located on the refuge’s Fort River Division in Hadley, MA.
Barn Swallows Are Declining in Some Places and Increasing in Others—Why?
Barn Swallows, along with many other aerial insectivores, are showing serious population declines in many portions of their North American range. However, the causes of these declines are uncertain. Pesticide impacts associated with large-scale agriculture, reduction of flying insect populations, landscape conversions, habitat changes along the species’ migration pathways, unknown impacts on the species’ Central and South American wintering grounds, and loss of barns and similar structures that are often used as nesting sites have all been postulated as possible factors.
The question is complicated—Barn Swallows in the northern portions of their range are mostly declining, while those in the south and west are increasing. If there is a single explanation, presumably the “answer” needs to make sense throughout that extensive range—why are populations increasing in some areas but decreasing in others?
Understanding Barn Swallows in MA
In this year’s work in Hadley, our focus is on starting to understand the population dynamics of Barn Swallows nesting in this portion of the Connecticut River Valley. About 30 pairs of swallows have nested in the abandoned stable in the last few years, making this site one of the largest known colonies in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, as is often true of aging barns in New England’s agricultural landscape, the stables in Hadley are in serious disrepair, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended that the building be taken down over a several year period, while simultaneously making efforts to attract the birds to alternative nesting sites.
Mass Audubon and USFWS are studying this situation to collect information that will help inform the policy decisions. This work includes regular censusing of nesting efforts in the stables and banding of nesting adults. At the end of the season we will issue a final report that details our findings, so stay tuned for more information.
I am a MA Audubon member, a Western MA resident, and frequent visitor to Fort River Refuge. As a birder, I have enjoyed the refuge for years, especially the Barn Swallow colony that appears each spring to nest in large numbers in the stable. I have followed the Barn Swallow issue over the past year and I am very disappointed to hear that MA Audubon is working with an organization that shows such indifference and contempt toward its volunteers and the public. I am questioning keeping my membership.
On April 19, 2019 Mass Audubon’s Advocacy Department formally responded to the USFWS Environmental Assessment: “If the barn does indeed need to be demolished in the near future, Mass Audubon supports the Refuge’s proposed action, Alternative A – Phased Closure of Stable and Delayed Demolition.” This continues to be our position: if the barn must be removed, we agree with the Fish and Wildlife Service proposal that a demolition process that is phased over time is the best way to proceed.
In Mass Audubon’s work in Hadley this summer, it has been clear (1) that the colony at Fort River is doing well and has not been negatively influenced by any structural changes that transpired before the beginning of the breeding season (we expect to provide a detailed summary of our data by early September), (2) that there has been notable success in establishing Barn Swallow nesting in a building adjacent to the BriMar stables that USFWS intends to maintain as a long-term swallow nesting location, (3) that there are previously undocumented, sizable Barn Swallow colonies in the general vicinity of Hadley, which may mean that the regional importance of the single site at Fort River is perhaps not as great as was previously implied, and (4) USFWS remains committed to using the BriMar stables issue as an opportunity to focus the public’s attention on a much bigger conservation problem, namely, the decline of aerial insectivores in much of North America.
Much of the discussion associated with the potential lawsuit by the Save our Swallows advocacy group is focused on procedural questions of how USFWS has approached their decision, as opposed to legal arguments based on biology. We (Mass Audubon) have not made any judgments regarding legal questions about the decision-making process, or about the structural integrity of the stables. Instead, we continue to focus our attention on Barn Swallow biology; we believe that collecting sound scientific data which can inform the decision that will ultimately be made by USFWS is our most constructive involvement, and we are pleased that USFWS continues to make this collaborative research effort possible.
Barns occupied by nesting swallows are constantly aging, and falling into disrepair, throughout Massachusetts’ agricultural landscape. Although there is no empirical evidence that disappearance of such nesting sites has been a driving force in regional population trends of Barn Swallows, the situation at Fort River nonetheless provides an excellent opportunity to learn about methods of managing this species that will help address this ongoing problem. As stated in our Advocacy Department’s response to the USFWS Environmental Assessment, “Mass Audubon’s bird conservation staff [remain] willing to advise and support the refuge staff in those efforts.”
I would like to respond to the statements made in the previous comment:
“If the barn does indeed need to be demolished in the near future, Mass Audubon supports the Refuge’s proposed action, Alternative A – Phased Closure of Stable and Delayed Demolition.”
The stable doesn’t legally need to come down; this has been established by a top environmental law firm, McGregor and Legere, based in Boston. USFWS simply wants to take it down.
…there has been notable success in establishing Barn Swallow nesting in a building adjacent to the BriMar stables that USFWS intends to maintain as a long-term swallow nesting location.”
The building referred to here is the hot walker room, a fraction of the size of the stable. It is not large enough to accommodate a colony even close to the size of the colony nesting in the stable.
“there are previously undocumented, sizable Barn Swallow colonies in the general vicinity of Hadley, which may mean that the regional importance of the single site at Fort River is perhaps not as great as was previously implied,”
Unlike the Fort River colony, which is on a public Refuge, these colonies are on privately-owned property and subject to the whims of the owners.
“USFWS remains committed to using the BriMar stables issue as an opportunity to focus the public’s attention on a much bigger conservation problem, namely, the decline of aerial insectivores in much of North America.”
Sparking public interest in the plight of aerial insectivores is a worthy cause. However, there is no logic in removing a very large barn swallow colony to do so. All of the work MA Audubon is doing at Fort River can continue without removal of stable. Saving the stable will lead to more public awareness about the decline of aerial insectivores than removing it will.
“Much of the discussion associated with the potential lawsuit by the Save our Swallows advocacy group is focused on procedural questions of how USFWS has approached their decision, as opposed to legal arguments based on biology.”
This statement is false; Save our Swallows has done due diligence into researching Barn Swallow biology and habitat selection. In fact, unlike USFWS, we have communicated with Barn Swallow biologists both nationally and internationally to best inform our position.
“Barns occupied by nesting swallows are constantly aging, and falling into disrepair, throughout Massachusetts’ agricultural landscape.”
This is true, however here we have one (the stable) that was in good shape before it was gutted by USFWS. Additionally, is unusually large, it’s on a federal wildlife refuge, there is public support for its conservation, and most importantly, it can still legally can be saved. It only makes sense to save it.
“Although there is no empirical evidence that disappearance of such nesting sites has been a driving force in regional population trends of Barn Swallows, the situation at Fort River nonetheless provides an excellent opportunity to learn about methods of managing this species that will help address this ongoing problem.”
MA Audubon should not be looking at the Fort River Barn Swallow colony potentially losing their habitat as a research opportunity, when the future of the stable hasn’t been decided. Research should not occur at the expense of conservation. Both can occur at once, or the the research can take place elsewhere.
As a a retired National Park Service ranger, I have spent years trying to educate the public, and, unfortunately, other national agencies, to use best practices in conserving declining wildlife populations. I urge you to take action to protect the swallows at Fort River.
MA Audubon should know that the FWS’ claims about the Bri Mar stables being structurally unsound are, at best, insincere. Last year, I and other volunteers hired a structural engineer to examine the building, resulting in a finding that the building was sound except for needing a new roof. We offered to pay for the roof, along with all future repairs, and USFWS declined the offer. The agency then went on to actually make the building unsound last fall by gutting the interior walls. Not only did this compromise the building, but – as we allege in our Notice of Intent to Sue – it violated the National Environmental Policy Act by altering nesting habitat in the absence of an Environmental Assessment and Record of Decision as the law requires. MA Audubon’s involvement gives FWS’ actions an air of legitimacy that’s clearly not deserved.
The statement that Barn Swallows are increasing in the south and west is misleading. Clearly, according to the map Barn Swallows are declining in much of the western part of the country. Note also that Breeding Bird Survey trend results vary by time period and region (how data is aggregated). Also, this map does not reflect the most recent BBS data (up to 2017). Finally, the regional credibility measures for FL and AZ indicate that the data for those states has a deficiency. Take a closer look at the data: https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/cgi-bin/atlasa15.pl?06130&1&15&csrfmiddlewaretoken=3YKakk7LxT2ki6NSpl4mstudYCqdW02C
Here’s an updated Breeding Bird Survey map (1966-2017) of Barn Swallow population trends across North America (https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/). As previously stated, Barn Swallows in the northern portions of their range are mostly declining, while those in the south and west (except for Calif) are increasing. But the point is not really to compare whether trends in one state are different from those in another state, but rather to underscore the importance of maintaining a Big Picture view of what is happening with the species. There may be many factors that are influencing Barn Swallow population trends – to me, the varied patterns shown by the Breeding Bird Survey results suggests that something larger than the destruction (or construction) of barns that can be used for nesting is a more likely explanation. Pesticides? Changes or threats on the migration route? Habitat loss on the wintering grounds? Declines of flying insects? Something – but I don’t think we know what – that makes sense to think of as showing broad-scale differences from one region of the continent to another.
As MA Audubon knows, Barn Swallows – while not endangered in Massachusetts – are declining sharply here. According to a recent article in The Hampshire Gazette, their numbers have plummeted more than 40 percent since 1980. This is a scenario that calls for protecting the species wherever it is successful. The Fort River colony – 37 pairs at last count – is nothing if not a wildlife success story. Why would Mass Audubon, of all parties, be in league with an agency that seems determined to mess with that? The Gazette also reports there is a pending Notice of Intent to Sue the USFWS for violations of the National Environmental Policy Act in relation to the agency’s handling of this issue. Maybe Mass Audubon should review the legal case mounting against USFWS before going further with this puzzling alliance.
I must admit, I am more than a little surprised that MA Audubon is essentially helping advance a federal agency’s agenda rather than focusing on protection of existing wildlife habitat and listening to the wishes and concerns of local birders and researchers. A USFWS meeting to discuss this issue last April produced virtually no public support for the agency’s proposal to dismantle the Bri-Mar stables. This is as close to a no-brainer as you can get. The stable building is habitat for a unique and outstanding natural resource. The preeminent bird conservation group in the state should be advocating for its preservation and protection, rather than partnering with an agency bent on its destruction.
Missing piece of information: the MA Fish and Wildlife Center refuses to allow any observer from the group of birders who organized to save the barn in light of studies indicating that replacement of an old barn by a newer, spiffier barn usually results in the loss of the colony. This should have been reported by the Warbler in the interests of transparency.
Lorraine Pearson, Audubon member