On Thursday, May 2, a city employee of the Sebastopol Public Works Department, doing what he thought was “routine maintenance” destroyed a barn swallow colony of over 200 nests on the side of the Community Center Teen Annex.
A few days later, this employee had the bad luck to run into Veronica Bowers of Native Songbird Care & Conservation in Sebastopol, who had been tipped off to the destruction by several phone calls.
She was on site documenting the remains — a few broken nest parts and broken egg shells — because she was developing evidence to turn over to Fish and Game.
Destroying the nests of songbirds during the active breeding season is against both state and federal law.
When she noticed a truck from Public Works in the parking lot, she asked the employee if he knew what had happed, and he admitted he had removed the nests. He hadn’t done it under orders, he said, just on his own accord.
“I explained that these birds are protected by state and federal law,” she said. “You can’t harm the adults, the chicks or the eggs, and as soon as you observe confirmed activity, you are required to stop immediately. That goes for tree-trimmers, builders, anyone who is interfacing with federally protected birds, you must cease work and get away … As soon as he saw the first egg fall, he should have stopped.”
Alas, he didn’t. The entire colony was wiped out.
The complication is that the Public Works employee had destroyed nests on this same building just a few months before — with no consequences. According to Bowers, that’s because it’s OK to remove swallow nests in winter, when there are no birds in residence. (It’s actually a service since it keeps them from being colonized by house sparrows the following spring.)
Destroying active nests in spring is another thing altogether, Bowers said.
“Those cliff swallows flew all the way from Argentina to come here and nest in Sonoma County and raise their young and then they will fly all the way back to Argentina at the end of August,” she said. “So they exerted a lot of energy to get here and to make those nests. Each one of those nests has about 1,500 little pellets of mud — so that’s 1,500 trips back and forth from the dairy next door to gather the mud and build their nests.”
At the very least, Bowers said, it was a failure of training at the Public Works Department.
“I feel like the city has failed these swallows miserably and the community who loves them,” she said.
She also feels the employee should have known better.
“Cliff swallows are not quiet when someone is interfering with their colony. There were over 200 nests that are in that colony, so you have almost 500 adult birds who at that point would have been swarming and making a lot of alarm calls. That alone should have tipped him off that something was wrong. But it didn’t. He’s watching all this death happening before his eyes, and he continued to do the work.”
According to Public Works Director Dante Del Prete, “This individual is very remorseful now that he understands the situation.”
Del Prete and other city officials met with Bower on Monday afternoon, May 13, to discuss the situation. Nothing can be done to repair the colony, so their discussion focused on actions going forward.
Both parties felt it was a fruitful meeting.
“The meeting was actually very productive, considering what took place. City staff was able to express our regret and apologize for the actions that led to the removal of the nests,” Del Prete said. “Veronica was informative and explained several items that should be reviewed in order to improve staff knowledge of bird habitat not only within the Laguna Preserve but also throughout all city maintenance areas.”
The city initially said one of the reasons the nest removal happened was that there were no protocols in place to protect the birds, but Bowers pointed out that such protocols actually existed on the city’s own website.
“There’s a large document on the city website called ‘The Laguna Preserve Biological Management Plan.’ They were aware of it, but said unfortunately it fell through the cracks … One of the things this document specifies is that they are required to have an annual training every year by a qualified biologist — so now they’ve reached out to someone at the Laguna Foundation and they’ve invited me to participate with that training.”
Bowers said that, in addition to the training, Del Prete suggested adding swallow-protection to their calendar of annual maintenance reminders.
“He said they’d add an annual reminder that goes out to the staff in late winter that the swallows will be arriving soon and that they are to be left alone during the breeding season, which runs Feb. 15 through Sept. 15. I thought that was a very good idea.”
The city is also going to provide markers at the site, telling people about the birds and their protected status.
“City staff committed to institute a training program and provide informational signage at the nesting site to the rear of the Youth Annex with input and guidance from Veronica and other knowledgeable professionals,” Del Prete said. “Overall, I think this is the best possible outcome that could come of this unfortunate event.”
Bowers said the city also agreed to make a public apology for this incident to explain to the public the steps they are taking to protect the birds in the future.
“They regret that the mechanisms that were in place fell through the cracks, and I’m pretty sure they’re not going to let that happen again,” Bowers said.