London

A thriving colony of at-risk birds is under threat in the Byron Pit

A Western graduate student who studies bird conservation has started a petition hoping to save a thriving colony of bank swallows that have made their homes in the Byron Pit.

Bank swallows have lost 98 per cent of their Canadian population in the last 40 years

A colony of bank swallows can be seen here in the sheer wall of the cliff face of the Byron gravel pit in this June 2020 photo. (Leanne Grieves)

A Western graduate student who studies bird conservation has started a petition hoping to save a thriving colony of bank swallows that have made their homes in the Byron Pit. 

According to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), the species can be found in every province of the country, but over the last 40 years has seen a 98 per cent decline in population thanks to habitat loss, climate change, pesticide use and collisions with vehicles. 

In Ontario, large colonies of more than a thousand pairs can still be found along the Saugeen River, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and large aggregate pits, such as the one in Byron on London's western edge. 

Brendon Samuels, a PhD student at Western University who studies bird conservation, said the fact the birds are roosting in an active gravel pit isn't so surprising if you consider the fact there are few other places for them to go. 

"Bank swallows as their name implies live in banks, they tend to seek out places along river bodies or ... where they have natural bodies of water occurring, however that type of habitat doesn't really exist in London anymore because it's been removed for development." 

"Now in Ontario, upwards of half of bank swallows exist in aggregate pits, sites that have been artificially created by humans," he said. "[It's] probably the largest colony in all of London for bank swallows."

More than 1,900 burrows would be destroyed

Brendon Samuels created this map of where he found more than 1,900 bank swallow burrows in the Byron gravel pit. (Brendon Samuels)

The Ontario government estimates there are about 409,000 bank swallows left in the province, which represents a 93 per cent decline in population since 1970. The decline isn't fully understood but theories point to pesticide use and habitat loss being two of the biggest factors behind why this bird species is fading away. 

The Byron gravel pit is slated for development and the colony, which Samuels said includes more than 1,900 burrows, will be destroyed. 

"We don't have many more of these birds to lose," he said. "I think the community needs to be aware of what's going on because these birds are important for the health of our environment."

Petition has thousands of signatures

A bank swallow perches on the edge of its burrow cut into the sheer face of a cliff inside the Byron gravel pit in London, Ont. (Leanne Grieves)

Samuels has started a petition to save the birds, which as of Friday has already garnered thousands of signatures.

"What the petition is calling for is that we want them to halt or at least move back the construction away from the vicinity of these nests to prevent harm from befalling these birds that are breeding, but in the longer term we would like to bring everyone to the table," he said. 

Samuels said that would include Incon Development Services, the company that wants to develop the land, the land owner, the City of London, provincial regulators and bird experts. 

When reached Friday, a city official said Incon Development Services can't actually develop the land until the province declares the area is no longer an active quarry. 

Before the Byron pit can be opened to development, the company that holds the license must remediate the land as part of its agreement with the province in order to make it safe, which will likely mean removing the 60-metre sheer cliffs where the swallows have built their nests.

City officials working on an alternative roosting site

Brendon Samuels created this map to compare the location of the swallows' nests with a draft of the secondary plan for the area, which city officials say is still in development and has yet to be approved by council. (Brendon Samuels)

"They won't be able to fill that much that quickly, it's 60 metres," said Bruce Page, a senior recreation planner with the City of London. "There's no way they can do that within a year." 

It means there's time to find a solution for the birds. Page said the city is aware of the nests and is currently looking at options for incorporating an alternative site for the animals within the secondary plan for the area, which is still in development and has yet to be approved by council. 

Incon Development Services did not respond to requests for comment from CBC News Friday. 

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks said it was unable to respond before the end of the day Friday. 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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