Each year, I try to plan some kind of habitat enhancement project for the farm. The past 4 or so years it has mainly been tree planting around the field borders of the farm. This will be an ongoing project to replace trees that don't make it and maintain them as they increase in size...but the benefits of this type of improvement will be HUGE! Besides a wildlife refuge, tree windbreaks help to prevent soil erosion (soil particles being blown away by wind) and they will create a nicer microclimate around the farm. It can be extremely windy around here and I find it unpleasant to work outdoors on those days. The strong winds are also very hard on young transplants and seedlings in the spring.
This year I have a different kind of project: I've been building birdhouses for tree swallows and bluebirds. 45 in total. A few years ago we hosted a Swallow Workshop at the farm with Nature Canada and our local National Farmer's Union. At this workshop, we had participants put together swallow houses as an activity. Some went home with particpants who owned rural properties, but there were about 10 left over that we put up in one of our pastures. The first year they went up they were inhabited by tree swallows, bluebirds and wrens. I was really happy with the success!
Grassland birds have been declining in Ontario from a variety of stressors including habitat loss and pesticide use. Species like bluebirds, tree swallows, barn swallows, meadowlarks, bobolinks, and several others are considered Species at Risk in Ontario and Canada. I remember when I was a kid, there were barn swallows everywhere in the country and I actually found them annoying when they'd swoop at my head. I was so shocked when I went to university and learned that barn swallows were listed as a species at risk. They seemed like such a common bird! At that time they were listed under the lowest risk category of Special Concern, but they have declined further in the last ten years and are now listed as Threatened (Ontario). There have been years when there are no barn swallows in the barn, so I'm always excited when they do stick around and I'm perfectly happy to have them swoop around me now.
Habitat loss has been one of the driving forces behind the decline of these birds. Native prairies and grasslands were some of the first areas to be converted to agriculture when European settlers arrived since they did not require very much clearing. Fortunately, these birds were able to adapt to nesting in pastures and hayfields, and barn swallows adapted well to the newly erected bank barns. But, over time, agriculture began to change. One of our neighbours used to transport cattle and pigs for other farmers in our area. A few years ago, he transported a couple of cows for us to the butcher. While we were on the way, he pointed out all the farms where he used to pick up animals and told us stories about all of the people who used to raise a couple of pigs and cows on their homestead. As these farms switched gears to focus on cash cropping, the animals disappeared and with them the pastures, hayfields and old barns that provided habitat for these grassland birds. This loss was further exacerbated by modern agriculture's heavy reliance on chemicals to kill weeds and pests; chemicals that also kill the insects that these birds eat. These once common birds have not been able to adapt to these new changes in agriculture.
The good news is that many farmers are starting to use more ecological practices and I see habitat projects being implemented on many farms in our area. There has been some government recognition of the role that farms play in supporting the environment (not enough in my opinion, but that's a whole other discussion) and there is some funding available for farms to create and maintain habitat on their farms.
On this farm, we have implemented a few strategies to protect grassland birds. We are working on rotationally grazing our cattle to make our pastures as bird-friendly as possible. I say 'working on' because it typically falls of the rails in August when I get overwhlemed with harvesting vegetables....one of these years we'll be able to stay on top if it all season! Rotational grazing is good for birds because it limits the time animals spend in one spot. This prevents trampling of nests on the ground and keeps grasses long and lush. We had one of our small pastures planted into tallgrass prairie a few years ago. It still has a ways to go, but someday it will be an awesome bird habitat and will provide us with a grazing area when the other pastures go dormant in the heat of summer. Justin's dad had the conservation authority do a 5 acre tree planting on the farm 20 years ago and 2 years ago we had them plant tree and shrub windbreaks around all of the fields. We've had one of our pastures planted into native prairie and have implemented rotational grazing with our cattle (which limits trampling of nests and keeps the grass tall and lush). I have a small area in our vegetable garden with some native plants and a rain garden. One of my goals for the future is to incorporate more pollinator strips with native plants through the gardens. Each of these things adds biodiversity to the farm, creating more opportunities for birds to reproduce and thrive.
If you want to build your own swallow nest boxes, I used a pattern provided by Nature Canada on their website: https://naturecanada.ca/animals/tree-swallow-housing/
I found this pattern really easy to cut out and assemble, but make sure you read all of the instructions before building! You may need to adjust your measurements depending on the type of wood you get. I also made the tops 9 x 9" to provide a bit more protection from rain over the ventilation slots. This site also gives you instructions on spacing and height.
I'm very excited to see who uses these boxes in the coming years!