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The Sneaky Neighbour You’ve Never Met!

As today is Halloween, it seems appropriate to profile an animal that is typically associated with all things sneaky and dark: the raccoon!

Many southern Alberta residents may never have seen a raccoon, as these creatures are nocturnal, so are not often spotted during the day. It is a commonly held belief that raccoons cannot be found in the Calgary area; however, they actually have been living in and around Calgary for approximately 25 years (CBC News).

Raccoons are famous for their black “masked” face and striped tail, and measure approximately 60-95 centimetres from nose to tail, and weight six to eight kilograms, with females being approximately 25% smaller than males (Wild Safe BC).

These masked creatures are omnivores and will eat just about anything they can get their hands on. They do, however, have preference for nuts, insects and berries. A raccoon in the wild has a relatively short life span. While a raccoon in captivity may live in excess of 15 years, a wild raccoon has an average life expectancy of three to five years, due to high mortality rate amongst their young (Wild Safe BC).

Raccoons in many parts of Canada have a “winter denning period”, or a period of inactivity that enables them to survive the harsh Canadian winter, when food is scarce. Do not be alarmed if you see a raccoon roaming around during the winter though! These clever creatures are adept at finding food sources and may not have a winter denning period in urban centres or warmer regions, where food is regularly available (Wild Safe BC).

While racoons are typically shy creatures, it’s not uncommon for them to become comfortable around humans or pets. These masked bandits are experts at stealing food from our garbage cans, and can quickly learn to associate humans with good food sources. As they become more habituated to humans, conflicts can occur. You can help discourage raccoons from moving into urban areas by ensuring your garbage cans are closed and secured, harvesting fruit trees and berry bushes as soon as the fruit is ripe, and by leaving pet food inside your home where raccoons cannot access it. If you are having problems with raccoons frequenting your property, installing motion-activated lights may be a sufficient deterrent (Wild Safe BC).

If you are fortunate enough to see a raccoon in the wild, keep your distance. Though they look cute and cuddly, like all wild animals, they become aggressive if they feel threatened, and can inflict serious harm.

As always, if you see injured or orphaned wildlife, please call us at 403-946-2361!

CBC News. “Raccoons spotted in and around Calgary”. Available at: Accessed October 29, 2017.

Wild Safe BC. “Raccoon”. Available at: Accessed October 29, 2017.

Photo Credit: Alberta Environment and Parks

The American Crow

As Halloween approaches, it’s a perfect time to talk about one of our favorite creatures that is typically associated with all thing spooky – the crow! Crows are a part of the corvid family and are a very intelligent bird. They don’t have the best reputation, and are often thought of as a nuisance – perhaps a little too often. I’m hoping that after reading this blog we will have enlightened some of you who may be on the not-so-fond side of the crow.

Crows can be found globally, and the species here in Alberta is the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). These birds are opportunists and will eat almost anything they find in the wild (or in their urban jungle) including insects, worms, carrion (carcasses), seeds, nuts, grains, and eggs or chicks of other bird species’ (Cornell University 2015).

Crows prefer to nest in the top third of an evergreen tree. Both parents of a pair (and sometimes their young from a previous year) will build their nest out of sticks and branches, pine needles, weeds, bark and even animal hair (Cornell University 2015).

Crows are extremely social birds and are rarely seen alone. Crow families consist of parents and their offspring from the past two years, the offspring will help raise new young before starting their own families (Cornell University 2015).

If you live in the northwest of Calgary, you might have seen a large group (100+) of crows that gathers in the fall and winter. This could be due to the interesting fact that crows will often congregate in large numbers (sometimes up to TWO MILLION!) in winter to sleep in communal roosts (Cornell University 2015). Some of these roosts have been established for 100 years or more, and will stay in an area even after it has become urbanized (Cornell University 2015).

Now is the time of year that crow fledglings (and other types of birds) start leaving their nests! AIWC is here to inform you that the crow hopping around on the ground may just be newly out of his or her nest! Crow fledglings are very large and look like they could be adults. Don’t be immediately alarmed if you spot one if these birds as just described, but take a minute or two and observe the bird’s behavior. If the behavior seems abnormal at all (lethargic, injured, or other), PLEASE don’t hesitate to call us (403-946-2361) to help! Always remember, it is unlawful to keep any wildlife without a proper license and training to do so.

Other interesting facts:

–          The American crow is closely related to the black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia) and both species are in the same family (Corvidae).

–          Both crows and magpies are known to create and use tools (e.g., putting water on dry food, dropping pine cones on predators near their nests) (Cornell University 2015). Tool usage in the animal kingdom is a sign of intelligence, and not all animals have the ability to use tools.

–          Mobbing is a behavior that crows demonstrate where groups of crows will work together to chase away a predator. Some owls are predators of crows and will eat their eggs or young if they have the chance, and as a result, crows can often be seen mobbing an owl.

–          Crows can learn how to speak (another sign of intelligence)! Peg Leg, a crow and wildlife ambassador of the Helen Schuler Nature Centre in Lethbridge lived to be 23 years old (Ho 2015) and often greeted visitors with a friendly ‘hello’!

By Tayler Hamilton, AIWC Volunteer


Cornell University. 2015. American Crow. Available at: Accessed June 13, 2017.

Ho, Clara. 2015. Peg Leg, talking crow at Lethbridge’s nature centre, dies at 23. Calgary Herald. Available at: Accessed June 13, 2017.

Six Things to Know about Red Squirrels!

With fall officially here to stay (for the time being), you’ll no doubt spot a variety of animals scurrying about as they make their winter preparations. One such critter you’ll likely spy this season is the beautiful, yet feisty red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). A native to Alberta, this industrious rodent can be easily identified by its signature reddish coat that thickens considerably as cooler weather approaches. But did you know that the red squirrel is closely related to chipmunks? Or that a litter of red squirrels usually clocks in at four or five babies?

In case you can’t get enough of these lovable yet territorial rodents, here are six facts you may not know about red squirrels:

  1. Though their name hints at a totally red coat, red squirrels aren’t actually fully red in colour. The coats on their backs can range from a grey-brown to a shock of rusty red, while their throats, bellies, and rings around their eyes provide a contrast of stark white.
  2. Red squirrels don’t hibernate during the winter – in fact, they stay active throughout the season. If you spot a red squirrel hurrying about during the fall, it’s likely because he’s on a mission to prepare for the upcoming cold months by collecting and storing food for future consumption.
  3. While we all imagine squirrels munching merrily on nuts or acorns, the red squirrel’s diet is much more varied than those singular items. True, their main source of nutrition comes from some nuts and the seeds from pine cones. But, by definition, red squirrels are omnivores, and their diets extend to include flowers, berries, mushrooms, bugs, mice, eggs, and small birds.
  4. Red squirrels have a firm grasp on food storage. Using tree cavities, underbrush piles, or dens as their own pantries, red squirrels can ensure that the food they’ve gathered for the winter will be kept safely and out of the way of trespassers. Before storing mushrooms that they’ve foraged, red squirrels have been known to lay them out to dry on tree branches.
  5. Red squirrels are feisty and territorial towards intruders, and confrontation between two red squirrels often entails a lot of tail flicking, chattering, and foot stomping. Though these actions may seem adorable to us as onlookers, it can mean that things are getting heated in a squirrel argument.
  6. There’s a reason why a red squirrel’s tail is so big and bushy: when it’s not being flicked around to intimidate a rival, the tail of a red squirrel is primarily used for balance as the animal jumps from tree to tree in wooded areas. With a tail that measures to be about half the size of an average red squirrel (six and 12 inches, respectively), half of the animal’s body’s length is devoted to helping it keep balance and intimidating other squirrels.

If you happen to see a red squirrel – or any injured wild animal, for that matter – that’s injured or abandoned, please contact AIWC at 403-946-2361 for assistance.

By Giselle Wedemire, AIWC Volunteer



Women and Wildlife

October is Women’s History Month in Canada, “a time for Canadians to celebrate the achievements of women and girls throughout our history and recognize the trailblazing women who have shaped our country and way of life.” Among those women are a number of biologists, ecologists, and conservationists including AIWC founder Dianne Wittner.

Dianne completed a degree in biology at the University of Calgary and began working as a wildlife rehabilitator in British Columbia. Later she returned to Alberta where she opened the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation in her basement. Dianne received the Western Legacy Award in 2012 for her work which recognizes Albertans that “promote western values and aim to preserve western heritage, pride and integrity within their community” (Leaving a lasting western legacy). Dianne’s contributions to conservation activities consistently exemplified these characteristics.

AIWC is now located next door to her former residence and continues to admit thousands of wild lives every year. The centre is currently managed by a talented team of committed women with complementary skills and expertise that contribute to public engagement, classroom education, volunteer coordination, and animal welfare all while supporting the centre’s primary focus of rehabilitating and releasing injured or orphaned wildlife. You can read more about these capable women who inspire us daily on AIWC’s Staff page.

You too can contribute to the centre’s activities by volunteering your time, donating goods from our Wish List or sponsoring a patient. Further opportunities for assisting AIWC’s efforts are also available under the Support Us tab of our website.

“Today, women, girls, men, and boys continue the quest for equality and inclusion in all areas of Canadian life.” Let us know how you will celebrate this year’s Women’s History Month and heroines of conservation in the comments!

By Stephanie Ruddock, AIWC Volunteer

Alberta Wildlife Recoveries: Wood Bison

What are Wood Bison?

Albertan wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) are a subspecies of the American bison, distinguished by their larger size, darker and woollier fur, and less hair on the forelegs and beards (Bork et al 1991).

The boreal forest, specifically wetland-meadows and open savannah-like shrubland are the most important habitat types, but this can vary from season to season (AEP profile).

Where are Wood Bison found?

Historically, wood bison in Canada were found across the boreal forests of North America, including Alberta and the Northwest territories. In Alberta, they are found in the upper Northeast, primarily in the Wood Bison National Park and surrounding areas. Estimates taken between 2010 and 2015 showed ~9000 free-ranging wood bison left in Canada (Wood Bison recovery strategy 2016).

A carefully managed herd of wood bison reside in the area surrounding the Hay-Zama lake region, and they are kept separate from the free-roaming bison found in the northwest and national park (Alberta Wilderness Association)

What is being done to protect the Wood Bison?

Wood bison are currently listed as “At Risk” by the General Status of Alberta Wild Species report, but the protected herd of the Hay-Zama area are listed as endangered under the Wildlife Act. Wood bison that are free-roaming and found in the northwest Alberta protected area are illegal to hunt without a license. However, a proportion of free-roaming bison found in and around the national park carry strains of tuberculosis and brucellosis, which are introduced livestock diseases. Because of this, they receive no hunting protection, to prevent the spread of these diseases to the Hay-Zama population and domestic bison (AEP profile).

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

The main threats to the protected wood bison populations are the spread of livestock diseases, with the more general threats of increases in agrarian land, climate change and increased predation close behind.

The Recovery Strategy for Wood Bison in Canada (2016) outlines both short-term and long-term objectives for the protection and recovery of both the free-roaming and managed herds. Short-term management of the disease-free populations in the original Canadian range, establish self-sustaining populations and increase genetic diversity. The long-term objective is “to ensure the existence of at least five disease-free, genetically diverse, connected, self-sustaining free range local populations distributed across the natural range, with at least 1000 individuals per population” (Recovery Strategy 2016).

In terms of what the public can do, it is important that we focus on greater consultation with landowners (as many are opposed to the somewhat destructive nature of grazing herds) and increased awareness of where wood bison are protected and how our activities may impact them.

By Jonathan Poll, AIWC Volunteer


Bork, A. M.; et al. (1991). Genetic Relationship of Wood and Plains Bison Based on Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphisms. Canadian Journal of Zoology 69: 43-48

Environment and Climate Change Canada. 2016. Recovery Strategy for the Wood Bison in Canada [Proposed]. Species at Risk Act. Recovery Strategy Series. Environment and Climate Change Canada. Ottawa. Viii + 52pp

Photo Credit: Alberta Environment and Parks

Winter Adaptations

As you may have already noticed, the fall migration is well under way. Many species make their way south for the winter but many stick around in Canada throughout the year. What is the reason for this? Why do some species leave, while others seem to be able to withstand our harsh Canadian winters?

Thanks to the process of evolution, many species have adapted to be able to physically withstand our colder weather, while others have adapted to fly south.

The Canada goose is a good example. But why do you see them in V-formations heading south? The habitat range of the Canada goose is quite broad, and extends to the northernmost tips of Canada, all the way down to the southern United States and Central America (Cornell University 2017). Geese who spend their summers in the northern parts of Canada will fly south to spend their winters in areas that aren’t as cold. Calgary and Southern Alberta have relatively mild winters compared to the vast majority of the rest of Canada (with the exception of the Pacific coast), and we can see some Canada geese year round here. There are also several species of ducks that choose the Calgary area as their home year-round.

But how do their feet not freeze? Unlike the snowy owl, rough-legged hawk, Ferruginous hawk and Golden Eagle (just a few examples), geese and ducks do not have a warm layer of feathers protecting their legs in the colder weather. Instead, they have a “counter-current heat exchange system”.

Well, that sounds awfully scienc-y (I am sure you are saying to yourself right now). But it’s actually a pretty amazing and straight-forward system. Basically, arteries and veins in the legs and feet of ducks and geese are extremely close to each other. This enables the warm blood from the heart (in the arteries) to pass in close enough proximity to the cold blood from the feet flowing back to the heart (in the veins) (Ask a Naturalist 2010). Therefore, the blood in the arteries warms up the blood in the veins and the legs of ducks and geese don’t completely freeze.

There are several other ways that animals have adapted to winter, and this applies to non-bird animals as well.

Polar bears have a thick layer of fat (blubber) that can sometimes be up to 11 cm thick, and are covered in an extremely thick layer of fur. In fact, polar bears are so well insulated that they can overheat (Seaworld 2017)! Other Canadian bears, the black bear and the grizzly bear, go into a stage of dormancy, more commonly referred to as hibernation. Hibernation is essentially the slowing down of metabolism to reduce the energy requirements for the body. Black bears and grizzly bears will hunker down in a den for the cold months, and can hibernate without eating, drinking, urinating or defecating for up to 7.5 months (North American Bear Centre 2017). By going into hibernation, black bears and grizzly bears are able to live throughout the winter when their food sources are scarce, and the weather is too cold for them.

But what about fish, frogs and snakes? What do they do in the colder months?

Well, dormancy is common in cold-blooded animals and it allows for reduced metabolic activity. Cold-blooded animals lack control of their internal metabolism, therefore, they cannot regulate their own temperature very well (if at all).

Some fish are able to create chemicals within their bodies that can lower their freezing temperature, thereby allowing them to still function in temperatures that they would otherwise freeze in (Michigan State University Extension 2017). Some species of snakes, such as the garter snake, will occupy a collective den with sometimes up to thousands of other snakes. The Narcisse snake pits in Manitoba for an extreme example of a snake den (Manitoba, 2017). Large groups that gather in this manner are more easily able to conserve their collective body heat than if they were to spend winter alone in a den (Michigan State University Extension 2017).

Some frogs can stay alive in a frozen state; they will seek shelter in leaves and debris, and their bodies produce proteins that freeze the water in their blood (National Geographic 2007; Michigan State University Extension 2017). The ice in the blood will draw out the water from the frog’s cells and at the same time, the frog’s liver will produce glucose which will fill the cells and allow them to keep their shapes without collapsing, which is what would happen if the water remained in the cells and did freeze. When spring comes along, water returns to the cells and replaces the glucose, and the frogs can function like normal again.

These are just a few of the many examples of how species are able to survive and withstand our Canadian winters. Because we do have several species that live in Alberta year round, we receive animals at our centre year-round as well. We are always grateful for support that comes our way. Please consider making a donation if you are able to, or sharing this post to spread the information you learned about today…we couldn’t do it without you! Be sure to leave a comment below for any other winter adaptations that you find fascinating that weren’t mentioned here.

By Tayler Hamilton, AIWC Volunteer


Ask a Naturalist ( 2017. Why Don’t Duck’s Feet Freeze? Available at: Accessed September 18, 2017.

Cornell University. 2017. Canada Goose. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds. Available at: Accessed September 18, 2017.

Manitoba. 2017. Snakes of Narcisse. Available at: Accessed September 19, 2017.

Michigan State University Extension. 2017. Winter Adaptations of Animals. Available at: Accessed September 18, 2017.

National Geographic. 2007. Antifreeze-Like Blood Lets Frogs Freeze and Thaw with Winter’s Whims. Available at: Accessed September 18, 2017.

North American Bear Centre. 2017. Bear Facts: Black Bear – Hibernation. Available at: Accessed September 18, 2017.

Seaworld (Seaworld Parks & Entertainment). 2017. Polar Bears: Adaptations for an Aquatic Environment. Available at: Accessed September 18, 2017.

Making the Most of Fall Nature Walks

From the cool, crisp air to the jewel-toned leaves, fall is definitely a season that inspires people to get out and experience nature. And with critters hurriedly scurrying about making their winter preparations, fall is certainly one of the best seasons for observing wildlife. Whether you spot a squirrel crossing your path on an evening stroll, or you spy a family of bears while out on an autumn hike, here are a few pointers on how to make the most of your nature walks this season:

  1. Dress appropriately With temperatures dropping (and, let’s face it, unexpectedly rising again, since we’re talking about Alberta), it’s important to dress in layers so you’re prepared for changing temperatures. Carrying lightweight gloves or mittens just in case is always a good idea when embarking on fall adventures, and an emergency toque won’t hurt, either. And if you know you’re going to be exerting yourself, make sure to don your best and most appropriate pair of shoes. Leave the flip flops behind and dig out your sneakers or hiking boots, depending on your selected trail.
  2. Unplug When you’re in the great outdoors, it’s tempting to document all the sights and sounds you encounter to share with your family and friends (and your Twitter followers). But in order to get the full effect of such natural beauty, I strongly urge you to put the phone away and enjoy everything that you see and hear in real time. Trust me, Facebook will be there and waiting for you when you get back to the real world. (And if you have to document the beauty around you, be sure to limit your screen time to only snapping pictures.)
  3. Pay attention The wilderness can be a serene oasis, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t risks involved. Being around wildlife means discovering their wild animal behaviours, and you may at one point encounter an aggressive or hungry animal. Pay attention to the sights and sounds around you, and keep an alert eye out for animal tracks and droppings. Not only will this save your footwear from stepping in something unsavoury, it’ll help keep you on your toes if you happen to come across an animal that’s not too pleased to see you. Use these tips to prepare yourself for the off chance of encountering an aggressive animal, and contact AIWC if you encounter an injured animal or if you have any questions about respecting animals’ boundaries during their winter preparations.
  4. Savour the moment While taking a vigorous nature walk is great for the body, some could argue that the visual aspect of such a jaunt is good for the soul. We’re lucky to be surrounded by such natural beauty in Alberta, and as important as it is to heed to wild animals and respect their environment, it’s just as important to relish what you see. Fall and all of its seasonal beauty is fleeting, and winter is, inevitably, coming. Make the most of these days and savour them with as many nature walks as possible.


By Giselle Wedemire, AIWC Volunteer

Back to School

Heading back to school can be tough for kids, parents, and teachers as everyone adjusts their routines. It can also mean kids spend even more time indoors, but keeping children interested wildlife can encourage them to explore and head outside. Check out some of these activities to keep kids engaged with nature until next summer!

  1. Take a Hike! There are still a few weeks left of summer to enjoy a visit to one of Alberta’s many municipal, provincial, or national parks to see wildlife before hibernation and birds before migration.
  2. Create! Help the kids in your life start a photo blog, write a story, paint a picture, or sculpt an animal. The information you’ll learn together by examining wildlife through different mediums will be surprising!
  3. Be a Detective! Once the snow falls, follow the tracks and see if you can figure out what wildlife has travelled through the area.
  4. Volunteer! Participate in a community cleanup to prevent animals from eating something they shouldn’t or becoming trapped or tangled in improperly discarded items.
  5. Adopt an Animal! Teach budgeting by encouraging children to save their allowance to adopt an animal from AIWC or sponsor a patient.
  6. Prepare! Start planning for next summer by mapping out a pollinator garden and researching the best plants to support bumblebees, butterflies, hummingbirds and others throughout the spring and summer.
  7. Write a Letter! Help kids write a letter to engage a local, national, or international organization to ask for more information about their wildlife programs and things that they can do to help protect wildlife and their habitats.
  8. Book an Educator! Book a wildlife educator to visit your classroom to learn more about Alberta’s animals.
  9. Fundraise! Get kids to collaborate with friends and classmates to fundraise for local organizations or gather in kind donations for AIWC’s wish list
  10. Build! Help give wildlife a safe space to live next summer by building nest boxes with children over the coming months. Bumblebees, bats, and birds all have unique housing needs, so do some research online to find out more about the best sizes and shapes for different species.

By Stephanie Ruddock, AIWC Volunteer

Alberta Wildlife Recoveries: Ferruginous Hawk

What are ferruginous hawks?

The largest of the North American hawks, ferruginous hawks (Buteo regalis) are named specifically for their rust-coloured plumage on their backs and heads. Due to their size and behaviour, they may often be mistaken for eagles. Ferruginous hawks feed primarily on medium-size mammals such as rabbits and squirrels, but they will also feed on smaller birds and reptiles. These hawks are endemic to North America, and they are usually only active in the summer months, during which they nest and raise the young, and then begin to migrate south towards the end of the season (AEP Profile)

Where are ferruginous hawks found?

The ferruginous hawk is found only in the Great Plains of North America, and the grasslands of southern Alberta, where they arrive during late March to early April and begin their southerly migration to Mexico in mid-October (Bechard & Schmutz 1995). The hawk-preferred habitats are uncultivated grassland and prairie, where they can utilise thermal updrafts, and quickly chase prey with no cover. Specifically, in Alberta their historic density and breeding success is linked with the distribution of Richardson’s ground squirrel, which is their main prey (Downey et al 2005).

What is being done to protect the ferruginous hawk?

The ferruginous hawk is currently classified “at-risk” by the General Status of Alberta Wild Species Report, and “endangered” under the Wildlife Act (AEP profile). It is estimated that fewer than 700 pairs remain in the province, as their numbers are declining because of loss of nesting habitat. As a threatened species, they are protected under the provincial wildlife act, and it is illegal to kill or harass individuals or disturb their nests (AEP profile).

The Alberta Ferruginous Hawk Recovery Plan (2009-2014) was established with the goal of achieving a viable, self-sustaining population across the Alberta grassland habitat, and for this population to be a continuous one that ranges across Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana.

Because of the increase in industrial and agrarian development in Alberta, the recovery plan states that the present reduced range is unlikely to be increased, and so efforts are best spent on maintaining current populations and recovery, while looking for opportunities to establish grassland restoration when possible.

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

One of the biggest factors in the reduced population size of the ferruginous hawk is a lack of nesting sites. The Provincial Ferruginous Hawk Lead has released education material for landowners who wish to contribute to the recovery of the hawks, and suggests the creation of artificial nesting posts that can be used to supplement existing recovery efforts (Nature Canada, Downey et al 2006).

As always, increasing knowledge and education of Alberta’s animal species is also one the biggest ways we can help. Public outreach and education programs have shown that people care deeply about protecting everything that makes Alberta special, so let’s do everything we can to spread the word and help recovery efforts.

By Jonathan Poll, AIWC volunteer


Alberta Ferruginous Hawk Recovery Team. 2009.  Alberta Ferruginous Hawk Recovery Plan 2009-2014. Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, Fish and Wildlife Division, Alberta Recovery Plan, No.17, Edmonton, AB. 44pp.

Bechard, M.J., and Schmutz, J.K. 1995. Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis). In Poole, A., and Gill, F. (eds). The Birds of North America, No 172. Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA. 20pp.

Downey, B.A., et al. 2006. Use of playback alarm calls to detect and quantify habitat use by Richardson’s Ground Squirrels. Wildlife Society Bulletin 34 (2): 480-483 /

Photo Credit: Alberta Environment and Parks

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


Cornell University. 2015a. Barn Swallow. Accessed August 14, 2017.

Cornell University. 2015b. Tree Swallow. Accessed August 14, 2017.

Cornell University. 2015c. Cliff Swallow. Accessed August 14, 2017.

Cornell University. 2015d. Violet-Green Swallow. Accessed August 14, 2017.

Cornell University. 2015e. Northern Rough-Winged Swallow. Accessed August 14, 2017.

Cornell University. 2015f. Bank Swallow. Accessed August 16, 2017.

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