Keep the barn door open: What Islanders are doing to give barn swallows a boost

Prince Edward Islanders are doing their part to boost the barn swallow population, from keeping their barn doors open to putting up ledges for the birds to nest.

'We make sure that the barn swallows are welcome'

The barn swallows are aerial insectivores, that is birds that catch insects in flight. (Submitted by Nick Saunders)

Peter Townshend knows it's spring when the barn swallows show up on his farm in Rollo Bay, P.E.I.

"When they come back, it's like the family has come back to open the cottage for the summer," said Townshend, who spotted the first barn swallows on May 1 this year, a bit earlier than usual.

Townshend has five buildings on his farm where the barn swallows nest.

"One in particular an old garage which is attached to the house that I pay the most attention to," said Townshend.

"They're in and they're out and they're squawking, a big, big, big fuss, you can't miss the fact that they're back."

The young barn swallows learn to fly quickly and Peter Townshend says it's hard to tell them apart from the adults after a few weeks. (Getty Images/Minden Pictures RM)

'Good company'

"We've always had barn swallows around here, as long as I can remember, even when we were kids," said Townshend. 

"They're good company, I watch when they come back in the spring and I watch when they leave, just keep an eye on them."

The barn swallow population seems to be rebounding on P.E.I. (Graham Sorenson)

In some parts of North America, the barn swallow population has been in decline, in part because people are tearing down old barns, or the structures are simply collapsing from neglect.

Townshend agrees the number of barn swallows did take a dip, but he's been hearing more people seeing them over the last couple of years.

Leave the doors open

Starting in April, Townshend leaves the barn doors open for the barn swallows to find their way home. Some birds go as far as South America for the winter.

"Somehow or another they find their way back to our garage, it isn't a coincidence that we have barn swallows in our garage every year, it's because the same ones are coming back," said Townshend.

Peter Townshend says there are no mosquito problems on the farm, thanks to the barn swallows. (Submitted by Peter Townshend)

Keeping the barn doors open attracts the birds, but it's also about having the right kind of barn.

"They build a mud nest and they stick it against the rafters so they prefer old, rough sawed lumber which the mud will stick to," explained Townshend.

"Planed lumber or painted, they don't like that, they prefer old barns."

The barn swallows like the old barn boards because the mud they use for nests sticks to them. (Submitted by Peter Townshend)

Townshend is so passionate about the barn swallows that he keeps the old garage.

"We could have torn this garage down and built a new one, but the old garage serves our purposes all right," he said.

Swallows welcome

"We make sure that the barn swallows are welcome." 

Peter Townshend says the barn swallows aren't bothered by him or the dog. (Submitted by Peter Townshend)

He admits not everyone feels the same, in part because of the "poop" that comes along with having the birds in the barn.

"Some people don't like barn swallows, they buzz them and they think they're going to get in their hair, which they're not going to do," he said.

"It's a very small price to pay for the service that they provide because around our place in the summertime, we virtually never have mosquitoes."

Some barn swallows go as far as South America for the winter. (Gordon Court )

Frequent fliers

The Townshends start the season with around a dozen barn swallows, which expands to more than 50 after nesting in late May. 

He often sees the young on the floor of the barns when they're first starting to fly, but says they learn quickly and within a few days, it's hard to tell the young ones from the adults because they fly so well.

"They really are an amazing little bird when you think all they eat is flying insects," said Townshend.

"I find it interesting to watch them."

Townshend proudly displays the sign he was given by the Island Nature Trust, for being a "bird-friendly" property. (Submitted by Peter Townshend)

Rural outreach

Three years ago, Island Nature Trust started an outreach program to rural landowners who may have barn swallows nesting on their property, letting them know what they can do to support the birds.

The group also designed nesting ledges that land owners could put up, outside a barn, or inside, if there are not enough rafters.

Two years ago, they put about 50 up as a test project, and handed out 20 more last year.

Carpentry students at Bluefield High School built nesting ledges that can be installed inside or outside barns. (Submitted by Island Nature Trust)

"There's been a couple of cases where they did end up using them, but on the inside of barns," said Leanne Tol, the coordinator for the Farmland Birds Project with the Island Nature Trust.

"It's only been a few years, it can take a while, the ledges need to get weathered a bit for them to take to it."

Island Nature Trust got some help from carpentry students at Bluefield High School who built the ledges as a class project. 

"Ultimately the reality is that they prefer to nest inside buildings," said Tol, who has given out a dozen ledges this year and is happy to provide more.

"You never know, it's worth at try."

Leanne Tol of the Island Nature Trust admits the ledges are more successful inside rather than outside barns. (Submitted by Island Nature Trust)

Keep an eye out

Island Nature Trust is also looking for Islanders to monitor barn swallows, using what they call a fridge form, that is laminated and put up on the volunteer's fridge.

"We're trying to get an idea of some key dates," said Tol.

"Basically just firsts, we're looking at firsts, the first sighting of the season, the first flying insects, first signs of young."

Peter Townshend's daughters gave him this nesting box for barn swallows as a Father's Day present. (Submitted by Peter Townshend)

There is similar work being done on bobolinks, another farmland bird, to find out more about the current population and how the birds are adapting to climate change.

"We don't really know, there isn't much information on barn swallow nesting on the Island," said Tol.

She too is a fan of the barn swallow.

"Just watching them flying around, they're very acrobatic," she said.

It's wonderful to go out and stand there and watch them do their thing."

Townshend says barn swallows don't like planed or painted lumber, they prefer old barns. (CBC)


Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.