Backlash over destruction of cliff swallow colony in Sebastopol elicits city apology
A Sebastopol city worker unleashed a torrent of public criticism this month, followed by a subsequent apology from the city, after he scraped away up to 200 mud nests made by cliff swallows under the eaves of the Community Center Youth Annex.
Apparently unaware the gourd-shaped enclosures were active nesting sites, the 19-year veteran public works employee cleaned them off the top of the high stucco wall May 2, destroying the colony and whatever may have been inside the conical nests at the time.
“This has been a nightmare beyond nightmare,” the employee, Assistant Public Works Superintendent Nathan Sutton, said earlier this month. “This has caused me lack of sleep every night. It's a blunder, for sure, and I just hope that I can recover from it. I'm deeply regretful and sorry for the grief that I've caused my community and that colony.”
But Sutton said he saw no evidence of baby birds among the detritus of the nests, and only a few egg fragments and bits of yolk lay on the ground when he was done cleaning under the building eaves.
He disputed speculation that scores of chicks died in the episode, though a local bird conservationist who has monitored the colony for 15 years said hatchlings can be so tiny it could have been difficult to tell.
“They were right on time with their nesting this year, and they would have absolutely had hatchlings at the very least, or perhaps developed babies in the eggs preparing to hatch,” said Veronica Bowers, director and founder of the nonprofit Native Songbird Care & Conservation in rural Sebastopol. “We're never going to know for sure because no one looked inside those nests before they were destroyed.”
Birds, their nests and their eggs are protected under state and federal law, notably the landmark Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But beyond any ostensible violations of law, the episode has aroused concerns about perceived nonchalance and even cruelty many believe would have been necessary to destroy the colony that passersby have enjoyed observing for many years.
“It's just heartbreaking,” said Susan Kirks, president of the Madrone Audubon Society.
Cliff swallows are a particularly social species, flying thousands of miles from winter homes in Argentina to northern breeding grounds around much of the United States each year, consuming vast quantities of winged insects along the way. The birds assemble their nests in colonies of varying sizes under horizontal cliffs, ledges and eaves from tiny pebbles of mud molded together.
It's a nearly 7,000-mile trip to Sebastopol, where the birds nest near the edge of the Laguna de Santa Rosa. The city's 2016 Laguna management plan specifically calls out the need to maintain the birds' access to the rear of the Youth Annex of the community center, though wire mesh been installed under eaves directly over entryways to the city owned building to exclude the swallows from those areas.
Bowers videotaped the birds constructing nests on the back of the building on April 21. Many were still works in progress, but some were completed, she said.
While University of Tulsa Biology Professor Charles Brown, a national expert, said the 16-day incubation period would have made it impossible for most of the eggs to have had chicks inside by May 2, Bowers said some of the nests could have had hatchlings already at the point that Sutton destroyed them.
Cliff swallows are common in Sonoma County and the larger region, where they frequently inspire displeasure among homeowners and landlords because of the mess that accumulates around their colonies.
“These birds, in particular, are vilified by maintenance workers, contractors, homeowners,” said Bowers, who estimates she cares for 200 baby cliff swallows each summer, some of them recovered from destroyed nests. “And it's widespread, unfortunately. The abuse and destruction of these colonies is widespread.”
State Fish and Wildlife Lt. Jim Jones said his officers contend every year with people who want to or sometimes do knock down nests when they shouldn't because they don't want bird waste around their home or their restaurant. But he said a warden sent out to the Youth Annex soon after Bowers alerted the wildlife agency was unable to find physical evidence of nest destruction, though the agency is still following up with city officials.
“The bottom line is when (birds are) nesting, or there's egg in it, that's when they're off limits,” Jones said. In Sebastopol, the city has typically had someone from public works clean off the previous season's nests from the Youth Annex in the winter of each year, in part to prevent house sparrows from hijacking them before the migrating swallows can arrive each spring and to get rid of any nests that have acquired parasites.