Barn Swallow ringing and Scientific studies

Barn Swallow ringing and Scientific studiesThe 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 1992Barn Swallow ringing and Scientific studies 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.

Barn Swallow ringing and Scientific studiesOn 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.Barn Swallow ringing and Scientific studies

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 roosting grounds.

  Barn Swallow ringing and Scientific studies Barn Swallow ringing and Scientific studies

The Conservancy decided to accept the offer of two trained ringers Andrew and Ivan Pickles from theBarn Swallow ringing and Scientific studies South Coast to provide public swallow ringing demonstrations. These proved Barn Swallow ringing and Scientific studiesso 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 Barn Swallow ringing and Scientific studiesseason 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. 

Barn Swallow ringing and Scientific studies Barn Swallow ringing and Scientific studies

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 and

·         to contribute scientifically to our knowledge of them at this site.


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.Barn Swallow ringing and Scientific studies


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 course. 


This last 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.  


However, there 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.” 

     “Hang on, Dad,” I interrupted, “Check the ring.” 

     “Oh, yes, it has something ‘…land’ on it. England, I think.” 

     “Let me 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.  


Barn Swallow ringing and Scientific studiesThrough 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.