Two Different Habitats

Tree Swallows - Photo Kevin Vance

Tree Swallows - Photo Rodney CampbellWildlife habitats vary greatly and will ultimately determine how a parcel of our earth is used and by whom. I will describe two different habitats and how they were used once I installed bluebird nestboxes to mostly attract Tree Swallows while knowing that bluebirds would still claim nestboxes at their instinctual  distances from members of their own species.

The habitat that is the most amazing to me is my Panhandle Road Grid (PRG) on the Delaware Wildlife Area north of Delaware, a public hunting area along the eastern shore of Delaware Lake. I am an official volunteer with the Ohio Division of Wildlife and the division has always been supportive of my grid projects by supplying U-posts for the boxes and blending management needs for the grid with what is needed to promote good hunting, mainly for pheasants and rabbits in the same five acre lot that is home to 55 nestboxes. A pair of boxes near the area’s parking lot completes the project’s total of 57 boxes. Most of the grid’s boxes are spaced 25 yards apart, but in order to avoid brush, a few boxes are spaced at 22 yards which is close to 20 meters, the distance revealed by ornithologists to be the minimum distance that Tree Swallows will peacefully nest from their own species.

Beaver - Photo Tim Daniel

Beaver – Photo Tim Daniel

I believe that my nesting birds evolved with Castor canadensis, the North American beaver, the furry rodent that is obsessed with building dams to silence the sound of trickling water. The popular PBS documentary “Leave it to Beavers,” now on YouTube, states that 45 to 55-percent of the topsoil in North American was produced by the workings of beavers.

When beaver activities flood a young forest, tree trunks stand to attract cavity carving woodpeckers and their cavities become active with nests occupied by the species of birds that I work with today. Beavers are back in many areas across North America to reveal what was erased and missed after the fur market arrived more than four hundred years ago.

Nestboxes standing in multiple rows in a grid design mimic a beavers’ world. My grid along Panhandle Road stands in a prairie managed for pheasants. Areas within the grid are wet and soggy for much of the nesting season. Across the road to the east, wetlands provide cattails that surround ponds and lakes that makes habitats that support populations of flying insects that enabled the production of 249 Tree Swallows from 57 boxes during the 2019 nesting season.

The grid’s swallows attempted 71 active nests with eggs from the first egg on May 6 to the last fledging event on July 28 for an 83-day season. Unfortunately, 13 (18.3%) nests failed, but successful nests followed six of the failures. Most amazing is that all 57 box locations produced swallow fledglings.

One box location is Box-41. On May 6, I found a Carolina Chickadee nest with three eggs. The only chickadee at the site cussed at me. I added a 1-1/8″ patch to the entrance, returned to my hobby car for a nestbox marked with an X on its front, a T-post, a pipe extension, two hose clamps, and a baffle. I mounted the second box three yards from Box-41. I drove to the parking lot down the road to turn around, and by the time I returned, a Tree Swallow was already inspecting the entrance of the new box, named Box-41.X in my data book. As I returned home, I could not stop thinking of the chickadee as there was no chickadee habitat of open forest anywhere near its selected box. Where did it come from?

The next day, I returned to the chickadee nest to be cussed again by only one, then on May 15, I found the chickadee’s three eggs on the ground and they had been pecked and evicted by a House Wren. There had been no development in the eggs and that led to other thoughts that lacked evidence. The guilty wren did not follow up by building a nest of its own in Box-41.

The paired box, 41-X, went on to fledge six Tree Swallows, followed by a bluebird nest that fledged two from three eggs. The berm of the road had been mowed for the summer and provided the only hunting habitat for the bluebirds.

From two nestboxes that had raised swallows, two House Wren nests fledged three and four, respectively. In other words, the swallows were so dominant at chasing wrens and bluebirds from the grid’s boxes that two other species could only nest after the swallows were done raising their families.

Red-winged Blackbird - Photo Mick Thompson

Red-winged Blackbird – Photo Mick Thompson

The habitat at Smith Park is quite different from the habitat at PRG. The park is located along Troy Road on the west side of Delaware. A nice asphalt bike trail leads to the park for easy access for bike riders, runners, and walkers with or without dogs. The habitat includes a drainage ditch accented with cattails that leads to a pond. Red-winged Blackbirds nest in some of the cattails as do other wetland nesters. Plenty of mowed grasslands and young trees bordering parking lots make it easy for bluebirds to hunt insects from the ground. During the last four years, I have added and maintained twenty nestboxes in the ditch, all spaced at twenty-five yards.

Unfortunately, suburban homes sit from one-third to one-half mile from the park and backyard bird feeders could be supporting non-native House Sparrows that annually invade the park’s nestboxes. During the 2019 season, I trapped and dispatched 38 sparrows. The deceased were stored in sealed plastic bags in my freezer and were later presented to the Tetrapods Collection of the Museum of Biological Diversity, The Ohio State University to be used by student curators practicing their skills in making study skins and professors needing props for their lab classes. None went to waste.

House Sparrows were collected between March 29 and July 12 before any of their eggs hatched. Before the villains were removed, they managed to kill two adult swallows along with two families of five nestlings each.

Smith Park’s swallows attempted 12 nests with eggs in 11 boxes, and ten nests (83.3%) were successful. Sixty-eight eggs were laid, 60 (88.2%) hatched, and 44 (64.7%) fledged. Once hatched, only 73.3% fledged. Failures were due to sparrows and rainy weather that grounded flying insects.

Bluebirds attempted eight nests in eight boxes. Seven nests successfully fledged 27 young. Once 33 eggs were laid, 29 (87.9%) hatched and 81.9% fledged. Once hatched, 93.1% of the young fledged for an excellent rate. Heavy rains may have caused insects and other life forms to be extra visible for hunting bluebirds.

In the four years of the park’s nestbox trail, House Wrens have never appeared. Not one stick has ever appeared in a nestbox due to the absence of woody bushes and other habitat favored by wrens.

If you find yourself in need of a small adventure, plan to visit Smith Park, or walk or drive by the grid along Panhandle Road. Both locations require dogs to be leashed. Panhandle can be accessed from Rt. 23 north of Delaware.

Conserve on!