Barn Swallow ringing and Scientific studies
The Barn Swallows were first recognised at Mount Moreland from as early as the 1950's. Trevor Snyman of Birdlife
Port Natal was possibly the first person to ring and record the Barn Swallows at Mount Moreland. In
1992 local resident Ted Vickers began to keep a computerised log of the Barn Swallows, noting
dates of annual arrivals and departures, and when numbers peak and decline. As the years have passed it has
become more than evident that the greatest peak in numbers of Barn Swallows occurs two weeks prior to their
departure in April.
Further ringing exercises began. Bird club members Terry and Carole Snyman and Dr Aldo Berruti,
then the director of the Durban Natural Science Museum were first, followed by a consistent ringing exercises led
by Sean Clinning. With Sean's departure overseas the late, well known ornithologist Prof Steve Piper took over.
The Barn Swallows were not only ringed but detailed statistics were recorded as to their physiology
e.g. weight, sex, wing measurements, condition, state of plumage with regard to moult and degree of ectoes. All of
this data has been retained and recorded at SAFRING, UTC, Cape Town which is the country's central data bank for
all birds ringed in South Africa.
On a scientific basis the Mount Moreland Roost, along with five other roosts in South Africa were
host to two international ornithologist, Dr Tibor Szép from Hungary and Zoltan D Szabo from Romania. The study
involved removing trace element extracted from the keratin found in Barn Swallow feathers. It is hoped to link
the material to specific, mapped geographical locations reflecting the same trace elements in the Northern
hemisphere. If successful this project is likely to contribute considerably to our knowledge of migratory
routes followed by different groups of Barn Swallows coming to South Africa.
2004 to 2006 the late Professor Steve Piper and Roy Cowgill, President of Birdlife Port Natal were
contracted by the Institute of Natural resources to collect and record data on all bird life from Mount Moreland
and adjacent proposed King Shaka International Airport site. This information formed part of the Environmental
Impact Assessment (EIA) required before construction of the airport could commence.
Part of this study included a helium balloon used to ascertain Barn Swallow altitudes over the Mount Moreland
The Conservancy decided to accept the offer of two trained ringers Andrew and Ivan Pickles from
the South Coast to provide public swallow ringing demonstrations. These proved so popular that they will be repeated on a monthly basis this coming season.
Each person attending has the opportunity to invest in a ringed swallow certificate carrying the number of one of
the swallows ringed during the evening. Should that swallow be captured, or picked up, in future the person will be
notified as this will be one of the most exciting bits of information we seek - as yet no-one knows where the Mt
Moreland swallows come from in the northern hemisphere.
The ringing not only helps educate but is an invaluable research tool. Last season over 350
swallows were ringed, not only does it allow for the possibility of finding the origin of the swallows but the data
collected on each swallow has resulted in various new hypothesis and facts. The first swallows caught in the season
provided a strong indication that the juvenile birds arrive first from Europe. Why this is, and how they find their
way, remains a mystery. On arrival the swallows weigh approx 17g although last season one came in from the 11 000 kilometre journey at only 12 grams. At the other end of the
season in March and April it is data on variations in moult that has lead us to question how many birds
are actually using the Mt Moreland Roost. As a tailpiece it was observed that there were swallows right up
until the 29 April 2008 when only a flock of 200 were left. The smallness of the flock itself is interesting.
A few days later and they had gone. “Winter' ringing is also being done to see what species remain and utilize
the reed-bed when the swallows are not there.
Angie, creative graphic
designer/artist/photographer and computer whiz and Hilary, ex museum educator and media and events co-ordinator
have been at the heart of establishing a view-site overlooking the swallow wetland and organizing a ringing
programme. The reasoning behind this was to:-
highlight the plight of the barn swallows in face of the airport
to contribute scientifically to our knowledge of them at this
It has already been noted these two
‘swallow custodians’ also carried the load of administrative work involved in representing the Swallows and the
Wetlands in the E.I.A and at subsequent meetings with the main role players – ACSA, the Airport Company of South
Africa, the developer; Tongaat Hulett, the property owners; eThekwini, the Durban Metro council; and other
government departments. Both Angie and Hilary, also man the swallow view-site from October to April where they
sell information booklets; CD swallow jigsaws and other swallow memorabilia that they have created. All
promotional/educational talks, fliers, media releases and fundraising are also undertaken by them. What drives
them? Passion, and something that has grown into a life changing adventure and challenge.
One of the favourite activities offered
by the Conservancy to the public is the Swallow Ringing Experience. Sponsored and organized
by the Conservancy these monthly events not only contribute to our scientific data and knowledge about the
swallows but they also help to educate the public. When in 2006 the late Professor Stephen Piper, who led the
initial E.I.A study of the birds, moved inland two ‘citizen scientists’ and qualified bird ringers, Andrew
Pickles and his father Ivan agreed to assist the Conservancy. They were gratefully welcomed. They now visit the
Mt Moreland Roost two evenings a month during the season. This ‘up close and personal experience’ of capturing
and ringing the swallows has become a firm favourite with both young and old
Achievements resulting from the swallow ringing are
best described by Andrew:-
My father and I
have been doing regular monthly ringing sessions at the (Lake Victoria Roost) site to try and find out where the
birds migrate to in the northern hemisphere. Recently I have also been studying the recapture data of the Barn
Swallows from the SAFRING database at the Avian Demographic Unit at the University of Capetown. This has shown some very interesting movements
of the birds in Southern Africa. If
seems to confirm some suspicions that we have all had regarding the roost sites north of Cape Town. These findings will be written up in due
season (Oct 2007 – April 2008) we caught and ringed 331 swallows during seven weekends at the Mt Moreland Roost.
Unfortunately the bad weather during the season played havoc with our sessions and during many weekends only one
ringing session took place instead of the planned two.
was great excitement on 13 December 2008 when our ringing efforts were repaid tenfold. It happened at 22h30 when
we were back at the Vickers house finishing processing that evening’s 105 swallow catch. We were about half way
through the birds when Ted passed my father the ‘holding bag’ with the next bird in it. My father removed the
bird carefully and then, looking at it rounded on Ted.
“Hey, this bird has
a ring on it. What are you doing man, you have taken it from the ringed group of bird bags – the one’s we have
already done. Give me one from the unringed bags.”
Dad,” I interrupted, “Check the ring.”
“Oh, yes, it
has something ‘…land’ on it. England,
look,” I said taking the bird from him. I checked, looking carefully. Its Finland! Helsinki, Finland.”
What a moment!
As ringers it was our first recapture of a foreign bird and, as importantly, the very first recapture of a
foreign bird from the Mt Moreland Roost. Needless to say in the absence of champagne a few celebratory cold
beers where cracked open that night.
Through the services of SAFRING we knew within a few days that the bird, number 136952V, was
ringed as a nestling bird on a farm near Nilsia in Finland. The farm owner had ringed it while still in the
nest on 23 July 2008. At about 3 months of age it had flown a straight line distance of more than 10 300
kilometres to reach Mt Moreland. Hilary emailed a media release to BirdlifeSA and it was soon making news
around the birding world on the Birdlife International website.
Since then we
have had contact with the farmer and some of his friends who are also keen swallow watchers. We are sharing
information about the swallows so that we can learn more. I have been informed that the chicks from this year
will return to the same general area in Finland but not the same site where they hatched. However once they have built their nest they
will reuse that nest for the rest of their lives. This has come from ringing records in Finland. Similarly our ringing records in this country
show that each group of Barn Swallows heads for the roost in Southern
Africa they used the previous year.