Wilderness Warriors

For the Birds

Wilderness Starts Here

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One lovely and lively day, while strolling on the campus of Western New Mexico University (WNMU) with a friend I hadn’t seen for some time, conversation flowed like a river ­– gushing, overflowing, banks full. So completely absorbed in one another’s words, my friend and I nearly walked smack into a modest barrier surrounding a small exclusion area. Startled, we stared at a creative sign: “Nest construction zone, please respect our Cliff Swallow neighbors.” Well, this was a first!

Lifting our gaze skyward, we could see the graceful aerobatics of slender birds, soaring and swerving, in quick, staccato movements. Challenged to lock our gaze on one particular bird, we tried to count – five, six, 10, 12, 17, 27 – easily getting confused, but finally estimating well over 100 individuals. These swallows were rhythmically flying to a muddy spot, scooping up a small ball of mud, and returning to a campus building’s eaves to construct their nests. The swallows’ droppings and the mud spatters on the ground were what we assumed were the reasons for the temporary barrier.

Our conversation diverted to the birds, their gracefulness, industriousness and balletic beauty. We agreed that one of the main reasons we chose to live in Silver City was the close juxtaposition of urban and wilderness living.

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Okay, I must confess: what I just described didn’t actually happen, but it’s a scenario I have imagined, and hope fervently will one day become a real possibility through efforts such as those of the society of Southwestern New Mexico Audubon (SWNM Audubon), which recently launched a five-year campaign titled “Wilderness Starts Here.”

The fact that wild things live right at our doorsteps – our homes, businesses, institutions of higher learning ­– is the campaign’s focus: to raise awareness in our community about the benefits of this.

Cliff swallows not only gift us with their stunning aerial acrobatics and nimble charm, they eat millions of mosquitoes and other small insects while they are here each year. Their presence is a true blessing, one to be welcomed, though not everyone welcomes their mess on sidewalks or windows.

Cliff swallows are a colonial species, meaning they congregate in large groups, reaching upwards of several thousand individuals. Not only do they thrive in larger numbers, they depend on this company for their survival as a species – for nest building, foraging and migration. 

The iconic colonial species in North America was the passenger pigeon, an evolutionary marvel that traveled in gargantuan flocks throughout the eastern and midwestern United States and Canada, with estimated numbers ranging into the billions. We managed to kill every last one due to lack of understanding, irrational fears and myopic vision.

Worldwide, about one in eight avian species is colonial. So why do some birds, but not others, nest in tightly packed colonies? One reason may be a phenomenon called predator satiation; eggs and nestlings represent a large food source but are available for only a short period of time.

This limited period may be too brief for predators to build or maintain populations to take full advantage of the food resource. Another prospect is called the information-center hypothesis, which allows less-adept birds to follow more-successful foragers when they leave their colony to feed.

Large groups may also provide some protection from predators, affirming the safety-in-numbers concept. On the flip side, larger numbers of a species in one area allow for easier predator detection for those on the perimeter of the group. Studies show that in cliff swallow colonies, the older, more experienced birds are located in the center of the colony, occupying the choice nest sites.

Cliff swallows have occupied structures in Silver City and the surrounding region for centuries. Reliable accounts by resident old-timers speak to the presence of adobe nests on Hillcrest Hospital, built in 1937 as Swift Memorial, now no longer standing.

When WNMU built the Physical Education building in 1988, the swallows took to it like ducks to water. The grainy stucco finish allows the birds to grip the building with their little clawed toes and provides an ideal substrate for the mud balls.

WNMU’s maintenance personnel were promptly ordered to remove the nests due to the administration’s worry about spreading disease through the fecal matter on the ground, although the droppings are sparse, exposed to the open air, and are cleaned off the sidewalk every season.

Despite the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 having made it illegal to destroy nests or cause injury to eggs and birds, this practice on the campus continued for nearly 30 years without opposition.

Every April, when the migrating birds would return from their arduous journey from South America, they would build their nests, only to have them destroyed. The birds clearly became distressed, returning to the empty site for up to two days. This disruption to their breeding cycle can cause a lengthy delay to their nest building, and they may even need to wait until the monsoons begin in July to allow them to find mud, which means the juveniles may then end up not migrating until mid-August.  Research indicates that the survival rate of these late-migration birds is greatly decreased.

In 2018, SWNM Audubon said, “Enough!”  A small team of members visited with the university’s maintenance director, after which the college agreed to erect exclusion barriers in high pedestrian areas, to deter nesting there, but leave other areas unobstructed.

This worked to a certain degree, until the swallows unexpectedly built nests in high-human-use areas and their nests were once again sprayed down. This same team of individuals from SWNM Audubon began a monitoring project to document the breeding success of the campus birds, and in 2018 and 2019, an estimated 402 birds fledged each season due to the agreement having greatly reduced the number of nests dismantled.

Pursuing this learning process of compromise, we hope to enter into an agreement that allows the university to erect nesting-deterrents in the non-breeding season, but to let the birds build their nests unimpeded once they return in April. This is about the time the students leave the campus for the summer, and the birds are gone by the time the students return in the fall.

We humans have choices, and in making our choices, we need to consider their consequences, to wildlife, air, water, soil and the ecosystem services of unborn generations. In a new report published by the National Audubon Society, it is shown that two-thirds of North American bird species are at risk of extinction from climate change. One way to assist our local feathered friends is to allow our cliff swallow neighbors the freedom of breeding so they don’t suffer the same fate as the passenger pigeon.

The window for protecting species, including ourselves, is rapidly closing, and the global community must collectively rethink and redefine how we value, protect and restore nature. I see the minor inconvenience of walking around a sidewalk smudged by nesting swallows as an honor, and approach it as such.

Seeing that wilderness starts here – now – with you, with me, right on our doorstep. By making moral choices for the benefit of all beings, we can begin protecting both wilderness and wildlife to a greater degree than we previously imagined.

Carol Ann Fugagli is an ornithologist and has lived with her husband and son in the Silver City area for 20 years. She currently is the education and outreach director for the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance. She enjoys hiking, playing the fiddle, guitar, contra dancing and loves all things wild.