Tree swallows are in decline, and a Vancouver birder has been trying to build nesting boxes for them in Pitt Meadows. (Wikimedia) Tree swallows are in decline, and a Vancouver birder has been trying to build nesting boxes for them in Pitt Meadows. (Wikimedia)

Metro city destroys birder’s houses

Declining tree swallows have perfect habitat on south shore of Pitt Lake and Addington Marsh.

An avid bird watcher is frustrated that the birdhouses he put up in Pitt Meadows were taken down, then destroyed by the city.

Alfred Serfas had erected 25 nest boxes for tree swallows along dikes on the south shore of Pitt Lake and Addington Marsh.

Tree swallows are in decline, he said, and the habitat in Pitt Meadows is perfect for them. He saw nest boxes in other areas of the lake that were being used, and having built hundreds of homes for swallows before, decided to provide some more.

Serfas bought the materials for the birdhouses at his own expense, and built them in the parking area of his Vancouver apartment building. He builds the boxes with a small hole to keep the starlings out. Swallows like to nest in the small holes left behind by woodpeckers, he explained.

Then last spring, he put the houses up on stakes.

“It’s my way of giving back to the environment,” said the retired teacher. “That was all my own expense.”

He declined to say how much each one cost.

In the late summer, Serfas went to clean them out and found all but three had been used by tree swallows.

When he returned this March, only three of the 25 were left.

He spoke with the Pitt Meadows operations and public works department and was told staff removed and stored them at the works yard. Staff tried to find out whose boxes they were. But about two weeks ago, they were destroyed.

“I just can’t believe they would do such a thing. Surely they could have donated them to some naturalist or environmental group, which would make much more sense,” said Serfas.

“The houses were in a wildlife management area and they provided nesting sights for tree swallows, a species which is in decline. The area is set aside to encourage wildlife and this is why the houses were erected. Removing and then destroying the bird houses is anything but encouraging. If this is what their management practices are, I for one am not impressed.”

City manager of parks and operations manager Randy Evans said it never would have happened if Serfas had spoken with the city before putting up the houses.

Evans said there would have been no problem in most other locations, but the city must maintain the dike, and that includes mowing the sides using a tractor with an arm mower. The bird house stakes were in the way of mowing, so the city took them down.

“We waited until after nesting season, and did everything we thought was right,” he said.

The birdhouses were stored for about six months, he said, but nobody claimed them.

The city checked with local conservation groups, then got rid of them. Unfortunately, a week later, Serfas came looking for them.

Evans said the dikes are treated like a nature trail system, but they are first and foremost for flood control, and are important infrastructure that must be well maintained.

Serfas has made a hobby of building and putting out houses for swallows, and has more than 500 in the Merritt areas – most mounted atop fence posts, and well used. He has about 35 more in Iona Beach Regional Park, and others “all over the city.” He said the birds will generally lay and hatch five to seven eggs each year, before flying south.

Addington Marsh is a swallow paradise. The little birds eat flying insects, and take all their food on the wing, he explained. So a place with lots of mosquitoes and other bugs is perfect habitat.

He noted that swallows were nesting in wood duck houses, but they are more than twice the size of an appropriate tree swallow house.

He returned recently, and put up seven more of his birdhouses.

“They were flying around checking out those houses right away,” he said.

He’s got another seven built, and plans to return this weekend to put those up, too.

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