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.

This year, Sutton was tasked in January with removing the nests for the first time, officials said. He said it seemed like just a short time later that he noticed nests back in the same area and thought “they shouldn't be there.” It was his own decision to take them down, he said.

He said he did not see birds around and was not thinking about nesting season, but just was trying to take care of business when he got a long-handled scraping tool and set to work over about a half-hour removing the mud nests. Afterward, he saw the pieces of maybe three or four eggs among the bits of broken nest and fine dirt he pried off.

Bowers said screeching adult birds should have alerted Sutton that the nests were active. But Sutton said he witnessed no such activity as he went about his work, wearing earplugs and facing the wall.

“After it (the colony) was on the ground there were birds up in the air, naturally, I guess,” he said.

That was a Thursday. The following Monday evening, Bowers, who cares for abandoned and injured birds in her home, began receiving texts about destruction of the colony and went out with a flashlight to investigate. She found several shell fragments.

The next morning, she confronted Public Works Superintendent Dante Del Prete as workers were checking in at the office for the day.

Del Prete wasn't aware of any harm that had come to the colony. But Sutton quickly owned up to having cleaned the wall, telling both Del Prete and Bowers, separately, that he had done the work..

Del Prete described Sutton as “visibly, physically upset when he finally understood the ramifications of his actions.”

Brown, director of the Cliff Swallow Project in western Nebraska since 1982, said the birds are highly faithful to individual nesting sites. But he said it's possible the Youth Annex colony will not return, at least for a while.

“When this colony failed, it was a catastrophic failure,” he said. “It's pretty unlikely any of those birds will ever try to come back to that site, so it may take a while before anybody comes back there.”

Sebastopol officials have posted a public apology on the city's web site outlining plans for annual and year-round informational campaigns about nesting birds and their need for protection. They already have launched regular employee training to ensure no interference with a colony during active nesting ever occurs again.

The plan, worked out with Bowers, includes bringing in a wildlife biologist familiar with Laguna ecology to ensure, in part, that city employees understand all the ways in which their work might intersect with requirements of the Laguna management plan, McLaughlin said.

Addressing the matter at the opening of last week's City Council meeting, Mayor Neysa Hinton highlighted efforts “to ensure it won't happen again.'

“While it's shocking that the incident happened, I think it's about education,” she said, “and I know that the individual is very remorseful.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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