Many swallows make a summer

By Maleea Acker, September 2015

Malcolm Rodin volunteers his time to nurture native (mosquito-eating) songbirds.

Esquimalt resident Malcolm Rodin has a passion for native songbirds. It began with summers on his grandfather’s farm in southern Saskatchewan. Each summer, he tells me, “Barn swallows would nest in all the outbuildings. I just got this love of them. You could climb up and look in the nests and really enjoy them.” 

Rodin, tall and modest, eventually moved to Vancouver Island, working at CFB Esquimalt  for 21 years before retirement. But it wasn’t until the store For Wild Birds and Gardeners closed in the mid 2000s (in Rodin’s opinion, the only one in the region to provide accurate advice on native bird protection) that his passion bloomed into a one-man attempt to protect and support swallow populations. “I’ve been doing this work ever since I pieced together what the solutions were,” Rodin says, “I had struggled for a long time to get good birds to nest in my yard and keep invasive birds out, so once that came together I wanted to connect with other interested people.”

As funding for environmental protection becomes harder to come by, the work of individuals like Rodin may prove integral to the region’s ecological health. His labour—including staffing an information table at local nature events, visiting and emailing home owners, consulting with government and nonprofits, and taking care of his own “string” of nest boxes—now takes more than two days a week. “I find it pretty amusing,” he says, laughing. “I have no degree in biology. I’m surprised that it comes down to me as a volunteer to do something. But I love being close to the swallows, so it’s a dream, really.” 

Swallows are migratory, returning from Central America each spring. They catch their prey on the wing and can significantly reduce mosquito populations, which in turn reduces the spread of West Nile virus. Violet-green and tree swallows nest in feather-lined tree or cliff cavities and nest boxes; barn swallows nest in mud cups often built on vertical surfaces such as eaves, rafters, and the undersides of bridges, wharfs, and culverts.

Programs aimed at protecting these and other native birds rely mainly on federal and provincial funding. Such funding has diminished during the terms of Prime Minister Harper and BC Premier Christy Clark. Numerous critics have complained about government underfunding of environmental programs, as well as bill C-38’s weakening of the federal Species at Risk Act. Barn swallows are blue-listed (“of special concern”), but they are not protected under the Act. Moreover, they are suffering from lack of nesting and forage sites, which speaks to larger issues of habitat protection and restoration, which both current levels of government largely ignore. 

Hence more and more it is up to citizens like Rodin and their organizations to protect Canada’s native flora and fauna. Rodin does this in a very hands-on, practical manner.

He and his wife Christina’s webpage—members.shaw.ca/swallows—instructs on the art of his nest box with an oval hole design. This keeps invasive birds like house sparrows from entering. 

However, it’s Rodin’s face-to-face collaborations with backyard birders and organizations that have protected or added habitat in small pockets of the region. Rodin has visited over 300 landowners to provide advice. He installs countless barn swallow platforms on both public and private properties. And he is regularly called upon to consult and provide volunteer services for agencies as diverse as Parks Canada, the Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary, Vancouver Island Technical Park, and the Cordova Bay Golf Course. He receives no payment for the work he does.

Rodin’s consultations help mitigate human/wildlife conflicts but they can also place him in murky legal territory. When barn swallows began nesting above the Victoria City Rowing Club’s Olympic team’s boats at Elk Lake, the rowers’ first reaction was to tear the nests down in order to prevent droppings from accumulating on oars and boats. 

Native bird nests, however, are protected by the BC Wildlife Act. Removing (or moving) them is prohibited. So Environment Canada asked Rodin to consult with the rowing team to find a solution. “I became the mediator,” Rodin explains. Club Manager Brenda Taylor concurs: “Some people didn’t understand why swallows are protected. Malcolm was very practical and non-judgmental in his approach.” Rodin’s unorthodox but successful solution was to relocate nests to the building’s exterior and construct additional platforms for subsequent nesting birds. It was technically illegal, but it worked. “If it weren’t for Malcolm,” Taylor tells me, “we wouldn’t be able to do this.”

Swallows’ aerobatics are beautiful, but protecting them in a world rife with invasive species isn’t without its grisly side. Organizations and individuals sometimes call on Rodin to do work others cannot or will not do. This often involves the provision of house sparrow nest and food traps to help lower their populations, though Rodin estimates that less than one percent of the home owners he visits can bring themselves to kill invasive birds. 

Opponents to culls cite squeamishness, cruelty or argue against humans’ tendency to play god. Proponents, including Rodin, argue that without active management, native species will suffer reductions in populations or even extirpation. 

Often, the problem grows inadvertently. By permitting alien species to nest in nest boxes, he says, “people are killing protected birds indirectly, by allowing aggressive birds to multiply.” Eric Higgs, Professor of Environmental Studies at UVic, agrees. “What he’s doing is consistent with how we manage other invasive species.” The ethics can be complex, Higgs admits, but “what we should be doing more of is understanding the complex ecological implications of what we choose not to do.”

Few birders would call the European house sparrow a welcome arrival to North America, though some admire its cheerful cheeps and wily ability to coax crumbs from café patrons. The sparrow is more accurately described as an aggressive Napoleon, enlarging its territory coast to coast since its import to New York (via ship from Liverpool) in 1851. House sparrows maim and kill native birds even when their own nests are secure. Recent research even suggests that differences in their immune system may protect them from new pathogens, allowing for more successful expansion of their range. 

Rodin confides that many who work in official channels have encouraged his alien species reduction work. “One reason I didn’t join an organization [was that] I could tell the truth to the public and be very forward in my wording…without fear of being fired or losing funding.” 

Rodin’s passion for education also extends to businesses that sell bird houses. Rodin admits he’s been asked to leave some stores after repeatedly asking their managers to change their practice of selling bird houses with round holes large enough to allow entrance by house sparrows. 

Rodin recently worked at Outerbridge Park, deeded by Joan (Jo Ann) Outerbridge to the District of Saanich. Outerbridge had posts and pilings with bird houses in disrepair and Rodin worked with the park’s carpenter to begin a nest box program. Now established, the boxes need little maintenance. “It’s a very successful site, where we built on what her love of birds and nature started.” 

Outerbridge left a legacy, but what happens when individuals like Rodin can no longer carry the burden? Last year, Rodin was diagnosed with leukaemia; he is currently undergoing treatment. “I don’t see a line up behind me,” he says. “The ideal succession plan is to get all levels of government onside.” This would involve, he claims, putting house sparrows on an invasive species list, rather than just noting them as an alien species. Invasive species are eligible for population reduction funding; without an Invasive Species Act, currently under consideration by the provincial government, efforts to fight invaders tend to be scattered or ineffective.

Rodin helped me install a second swallow box in my yard this spring, over 50 years after seeing his first nesting swallows. He watched as two newly returned pairs of violet-green swallows circled the house. “My truck burns $20 an hour doing these house calls. But it’s a passion and some interests and passions could cost a lot more.”

Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.