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Species Spotlight: Swallows

You may have noticed the swift flight of little birds as you drive over a bridge, walk along a creek or float down the river. These birds are swallows, the topic of this blog!

Swallows are members of the Passeriformes order, colloquially referred to as passerines. Passerines are the most common order of birds, and include more than half of all the bird species. Swallows can easily be identified by their small size and deep fork in their tails. Ancient mythology alludes that the swallow has a forked tail because it stole fire from the gods to bring to people. One of the gods was not happy about it and retaliated by throwing a fireball at the swallow, singeing away the swallow’s middle tail feathers (Cornell University 2015a).

Several swallow patients are admitted to AIWC every year, and often these patients are young nestlings which require feedings every 30 minutes (this is very time intensive!). Lovely donations of knitted bird nests (imagine tiny touques) that we have received in the past mimic natural nests and help swallow nestlings stay close to their siblings. The swallows pictured in this blog were intakes as nestlings because their nest had been attacked by a cat. Through help from our dedicated staff, volunteers, and donations from you, they will soon be ready to be released back into the wild, their natural habitat!

One of the most fascinating things about swallows is how these birds demonstrate smooth aerial acrobatics. They can be seen diving and darting in all directions and are very much in control of their flight paths. Swallows are aerial insectivores, meaning they catch insects in flight as their main source of food (it can be quite captivating to see first-hand!).

Swallow nestling patients that we receive at AIWC are formula-fed from before they even open their eyes, and are fed mealworms by tweezers as they get bigger. Once they graduate into an outdoor enclosure, they are encouraged to fly around and have been known to steal mealworms from a pair of tweezers that were meant to be fed to another swallow waiting nearby for their meal. Patients who demonstrate this behaviour have a high chance of success in the wild!

Swallows can have bright or dark but iridescent or metallic feathers. The barn swallows in these photos have iridescent blue feathers on their heads, and tawny brown/rust-coloured feathers on their necks, and a fawn colour on their chests.

Cliff swallows are the most similar in colour to barns swallows but are mostly grey with a tawny brown/rust-coloured neck, blue head, and white spot on their foreheads. While tree swallows are white blue, violet-green swallows are emerald green and white, and northern rough-winged swallows and bank swallows are mostly brown.

Although there are several different species of swallows that may appear similar in size, behavior and sometimes colour, they have each adapted to their own unique habitat.

Table 1 – Habitat comparison of different species of swallows

Species Habitat
Barn Swallow Feeds in open habitats from fields, parks, and roadway edges to marshes, meadows, ponds, and coastal waters. Nests are often under the eaves of buildings, inside sheds or barns, sides of bridges, and other structures (Cornell University 2015a).
Tree Swallow  

Breed in open habitats such as fields and wetlands, usually near water. Nest in artificial nest boxes and tree cavities. Feeds in flocks over wetlands, water, and agricultural fields (Cornell University 2015b).

Cliff Swallow  

Feed in areas near and over water, frequently mixing with other species of swallows. They have adapted to bridges, overpasses, and culverts as their colonial nesting sites (Cornell University 2015c).

Violet-Green Swallow  

Breed in open woodlands including deciduous, evergreen, and mixed species woodlands, especially where old cavity-filled trees occur. They feed near lakes and streams where they forage for flying insects (Cornell University 2015d).

Northern-rough Winged Swallow  

Breed in a wide range of open habitats, with openings in various vertical surfaces, including banks, gorges, and human structures (Cornell University 2015e).

Bank Swallow  

Live in low areas along waterbodies such as rivers, streams, ocean coasts, or reservoirs. Usually live near vertical cliffs or banks where they nest in colonies of 10 to 2,000 nests. Man-made sites, such as sand and gravel quarries or road cuts, are also suitable habitat (Cornell University 2015f).

 

Time for some interesting facts about swallows that you might not have already known!

  • The barn swallow is the most abundant and widely distributed swallow species in the world (Cornell University 2015a).
  • Barn swallow parents may receive help from other birds to feed their young and these helpers are most likely older siblings from previous clutches, but could also be unrelated juveniles (Cornell University 2015a). This behaviour is also seen in crows and other corvids.
  • Tree swallows can form large flocks (reaching hundreds of thousands) during migration and throughout winter. They gather as dense cloud above their roost site in the evening, and can resemble a tornado as they fly in unison (Cornell University 2015b).
  • Cliff and bank swallows usually nest in colonies and colonies can reach up to several thousand (2,000 to 3,700) nests in one spot (Cornell University 2015c,f).
  • Some cliff swallows may lay eggs in their own nest, or other nests in their colony. They have been seen transplanting one of their eggs to another nest by carrying it in their beak (Cornell University 2015c).
  • Cliff swallows will call out to other cliff swallows to alert them when a large swarm of insects is nearby (Cornell University 2015c).
  • Violet-green swallows have been recorded flying at 45 km/h (the Peregrine Falcon is the fastest bird of prey and averages about 40 to 56 km/h (Cornell University 2015d).
  • The northern rough-winged swallow is named due to the outer wing feathers, which have small hooks or points on their leading edges (Cornell University 2015e).
  • The male bank swallow has been known to pursue females other than his mate at the colony in an attempt to mate with them (Cornell University 2015f).

Remember, if you see injured or orphaned wildlife, you can contact AIWC (403-946-2361) for help and assistance if you think the animal is in distress.

By Tayler Hamilton, AIWC Volunteer

References:

Cornell University. 2015a. Barn Swallow. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Barn_Swallow/id. Accessed August 14, 2017.

Cornell University. 2015b. Tree Swallow. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Tree_Swallow/id. Accessed August 14, 2017.

Cornell University. 2015c. Cliff Swallow. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Cliff_Swallow/id. Accessed August 14, 2017.

Cornell University. 2015d. Violet-Green Swallow. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Violet-green_Swallow/id. Accessed August 14, 2017.

Cornell University. 2015e. Northern Rough-Winged Swallow. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Rough-winged_Swallow/id. Accessed August 14, 2017.

Cornell University. 2015f. Bank Swallow. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bank_Swallow/id. Accessed August 16, 2017.

Flights of Fancy

Fall is a time of change; leaves are turning, children are back to school and birds are migrating. Currently, AIWC has 20 Swainson’s Hawk patients in care for reasons ranging from head trauma and broken wings sustained from car collisions to rodenticide poisoning. Please help to support their rehabilitation process which means getting them up, up and away in time for their September migration!

Tickets to our Flights of Fancy Fall Migration Event are available at https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/flights-of-fancy-tickets-36937730747?utm_term=eventurl_text

Thank you for your support!

 

Preserving Alberta’s Grizzly Population

The grizzly, one of Alberta’s most iconic animals, is a large bear with a shoulder hump, and ranges in colour from blonde to brown. Males can weigh from 200-300 kg, while female grizzlies weigh 100-200 kg. Grizzlies have a slow reproductive rate, as females typically have their first litter between four and eight years of age, and have long intervals between litters. Grizzly cubs typically remain with their mothers for anywhere from two to five years (Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan).

As omnivores, grizzlies forage on plant-based sources of foods, such as grasses, berries, roots, but also eat fish, rodents, insects and birds. Grizzlies living closer to human populations may incorporate garbage, livestock and grains into their diet (Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan).

While most bears will try to avoid humans, when their natural sources of food are in low supply, grizzlies may roam into human-populated areas such as towns or campsites. Once grizzlies learn there is an abundant supply of food in human-populated areas, they may be reluctant to leave (Willis). For strategies and information on how to reduce grizzly/human interaction, visit http://aep.alberta.ca/recreation-public-use/alberta-bear-smart/default.aspx .

The grizzly bear was designated a threatened species in Alberta in 2010, due mostly to human causes such as hunting and self-defence kills (Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan). Additionally, increased human activity in grizzly territory can result in more human/bear conflicts, which may lead to more bear deaths.

In 2008, the Alberta government introduced the Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, a five-year strategy focused on reducing human-caused grizzly deaths, with the goal of achieving a self-sustaining grizzly population. The Recovery Plan included recommendations such as temporarily suspending hunting, controlling use and development of land in grizzly territory and developing education programs (Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan).

A recent study performed by the University of Alberta has shown that the grizzly population in southwestern Alberta has increased 4% from 2007, a figure that Alberta Environment and Parks believe demonstrates that the Recovery Plan is working (Derworiz). A 2014 study of the area from the boundaries of Banff and Jasper national parks, east to Drayton Valley and Rocky Mountain House, has shown a 7% increase in the grizzly population. Alberta Environment and Parks estimates that the grizzly population could be between 1,000 and 1,200 bears across the province of Alberta, compared to the estimated 700 grizzlies in Alberta prior to the introduction of the Grizzly Recovery Plan (Derworiz). While these numbers are promising, it is clear that more work and conservation efforts are required over the coming years to ensure that Alberta’s grizzly population continues to grow, and eventually, thrive.

Are you interested in learning how you can help AIWC care for injured and orphaned wildlife? Visit https://www.aiwc.ca/support-us/ for more information.

By Anna Wingenbach, AIWC Volunteer 

Photo Credit: Alberta Environment and Parks

Sources:

“Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan.” Alberta Environment and Parks, Web. Mar. 2008. aep.alberta.ca/fish-wildlife/wildlife-management/grizzly-bear-recovery-plan/documents/GrizzlyBear2008-2013-RecoveryPlan-2008.pdf. Accessed 10 Aug. 2017.

Willis, Katie. “How to keep Alberta’s grizzly bears-and yourself-Safe this spring.” University of Alberta, Web. 4 Apr. 2017, www.ualberta.ca/news-and-events/newsarticles/2017/april/how-to-keep-albertas-grizzly-bears-safe. Accessed 10 Aug. 2017.

Derworiz, Colette. “Southern Alberta Grizzly Bear Numbers on the Rise.” Calgary Herald, Web. 29 June 2016, calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/southern-alberta-grizzly-bear-numbers-on-the-rise-survey. Accessed 10 Aug. 2017.

 

Meet the Olive-Sided Flycatcher!

“Quick, free beer!”

If you’ve heard this distinctive rapid call in the boreal forests of Alberta, it’s probably not coming from the local pub, but from an olive-sided flycatcher.

Olive-sided flycatchers are stout songbirds found across Canada in forest clearings surrounding rivers, bogs, and marshes where insect populations are high. They are named for their grey-olive colouring which provides excellent camouflage in their wooded range making them difficult for birders to spot save for their unique song, “quick, free beer!” Olive-sided flycatchers are territorially aggressive and have been known to knock squirrels and other birds out of trees to protect their nest (Olive-Sided Flycatcher). They also have one of the longest recorded ranges of flycatchers with some migrating between Alaska and Bolivia annually (Contopus Cooperi).

While this species does well in post-fire areas, having a preference for catching prey on the wing from high tree snag perches, other tree-clearing activities seem to have detrimental impacts on their numbers. The olive-sided flycatcher population has been declining steadily for several decades. Although little is known about the direct cause of the decrease, contributing factors likely include a decrease in insects, fire suppression, logging, mining, and conversion of land for commercial and residential uses. Unfortunately, the breeding and feeding habits of the olive-sided flycatcher make them less resilient to additional threats. A lengthy nesting period increases the risk of predation while a dependence on insects can make for a tenuous food supply during inclement weather (Recovery Strategy for the Olive-Sided Flycatcher).

In an effort to protect this species, federal, provincial, and territorial partners have come together to develop the Recovery Strategy for the Olive-Sided Flycatcher and the proposed Multispecies Action Plan for Jasper National Park of Canada. Although there are some concerns about the effectiveness of these measures, these strategies should increase population reporting to provide better data on this songbird’s ideal habitat while clarifying the most pressing threats to the species so that improved plans for recovery can be created in future.

Approximately one-quarter to one-third of AIWC patients each year are songbirds. To help us rehabilitate and release these wild lives, sponsor a songbird on our website.

By Stephanie Ruddock, AIWC Volunteer

Photo Credit: Government of Canada Species at Risk Public Registry

Sources:

“Olive-Sided Flycatcher.” Environment Canada Species at Risk. Web. 01 Aug. 2017. <http://www.speciesatrisk.ca/SARGuide/download/Olive-Sided%20Flycatcher.pdf>.

“Contopus Cooperi”. Boreal Songbird Initiative. Web. 15 Nov. 2015. Web. 01 Aug. 2017. <http://www.borealbirds.org/bird/olive-sided-flycatcher>.

“Recovery Strategy for the Olive-sided Flycatcher.” (n.d.): n. pag. Environment Canada Species at Risk. Web. 01 Aug. 2017. < http://www.registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/virtual_sara/files/plans/rs_olive-sided%20flycatcher_e_final.pdf>

Alberta Wildlife Recoveries: Northern Leopard Frog

What are leopard frogs?

One of the largest frog species found in Alberta, the northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens) varies in size between 2 and 5 inches. They can be easily distinguished by their green or brown colouration and the numerous dark spots that give them their name (Russell & Bauer 2000). The call of the leopard frog is also quite distinctive, a low-pitched snore followed by clucking or grunting noises (AEP).

Where are leopard frogs found?

Like all amphibians, the northern leopard frog thrives best in locations where clean, fresh water is readily available. They also prefer open or lightly wooded areas rather than heavy forest cover (AEP, Russell & Bauer 2000).

Until the late 1970s, leopard frogs were widely distributed across most of the province, but due to habitat fragmentation are now found mainly in isolated populations in the southern grass and wetlands of Alberta (Kendell 2007). The Alberta Environmental Protection agency has since listed the species as threatened, meaning they are at potential risk of becoming endangered.

What is being done to protect the leopard frog?

Efforts to increase population numbers of the leopard frog began in 2005 with the drafting of the Alberta Northern Leopard Frog Recovery Plan 2005-2010, which aimed to “achieve well-distributed and self-sustaining populations of Northern Leopard Frogs throughout their historical range in Alberta”.

The first step was to conduct initial surveys of the entire province, which revealed around 20 populations of leopard frogs that had not yet been discovered. However, these surveys also showed that many of these sites were heavily impacted by human activity, mainly from agrarian development (ANLPRP 2005). The landowners of each of these instances were also surveyed and educated about the leopard frogs, in an effort to increase awareness and stewardship responsibilities. These issues were then also introduced to the public (via newspaper articles and tv segments), and conservation education was used to demonstrate the need for preservation of the species.

Over the course of the 5-year recovery plan, several re-introductions of leopard frog eggs were undertaken in historical leopard frog ranges. These initial re-introductions were closely monitored, and deemed a success after a majority of the eggs reached young-of-the-year stage in their development (followed by sub-adult and finally adult stage) (ANLPRP 2005). Based on these results, and data gathered from a similar project in Washington state, a facility for captive breeding and eventual release into the wild was constructed in Caroline, at the Raven Brood Trout Station in 2010.

Why is recovery of the leopard frog important?

Any species is an important contribution to the diversity and wellbeing of the ecosystem they inhabit. Northern leopard frogs feed on quite a large variety of prey, including small birds and even snakes. In this way, they can help reduce the numbers of animals that may prey on more susceptible species.

Amphibians are also generally very good bio-indicators, as they have a wide range of habitats and respond to change very quickly (COSEWIC). Responses to introduced predators/competing species and habitat changes (in the case of Alberta, the drainage of watersheds for agriculture and habitat fragmentation) can tell us exactly how the rest of the ecosystem may be effected.

As well as benefiting their own ecosystem, the leopard frog might also help us in ways we do not yet fully understand. Research from the University of Bath (UK) showed that synthetic versions of a molecule found in the egg cells of the northern leopard frog can be used to treat brain tumours, and perhaps other forms of cancer (Eurekalert 2007).

What more needs to be done, and how can we help?

The northern leopard frog is currently under the supervision of the MULTISAR (Multiple Species at Risk program), which focuses on: surveying local populations; assessing the ecological status of the habitat; developing management recommendations and habitat enhancement projects; and monitoring the species’ response over time (AEP).

The release of information and subsequent education of the general public, as outlined in the Frog Recovery Plan, is focused primarily on the prevention of further habitat degradation and public assistance in finding new populations for us all to take care of.

Are you interested in learning how you can support AIWC care of injured and orphaned wildlife? Visit https://www.aiwc.ca/support-us/ for more information!

By Jonathan Poll, AIWC Volunteer

Photo Credit: Alberta Environment and Parks

References

Alberta Environment and Parks Northern Leopard Frog Species Profile (http://aep.alberta.ca/fish-wildlife/wild-species/amphibians/frogs/northern-leopard-frog.aspx)

Alberta Environment and Sustainable Research Development. 2012. Alberta Northern Leopard Frog Recovery Plan, 2010-2015. Alberta Species at Risk Recovery Plan no. 20. Edmonton, AB. 34 pp.

COSEWIC: (http://www.registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/species/speciesDetails_e.cfm?sid=551)

Eurekalert article on the research from University of Bath (https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-06/uob-fmc062607.php)

Kendell, K., and Prescott, D. 2007. Northern Leopard Frog reintroduction strategy for Alberta. Technical Report, T-2007-002, Alberta Conservation Association, Edmonton, AB. 31 pp.

Russell, A.P., and Bauer, A.M. 2000. The Amphibians and Reptiles of Alberta. A field guide and primer of boreal herpetology, 2nd edition. University of Calgary Press and University of Alberta Press, Calgary and Edmonton, AB. 279 pp.