INSIDE THE GREENHOUSE | Re-telling climate change stories

Pushing Boundaries: Grad Students Think like Barn Swallows to Craft an Artistic Nesting Site

ITG Highlighted in CU Boulder Today

For hundreds of years, barn swallows have signaled the coming of spring. In many cultures, it is considered good luck to have barn swallows build nests on a person’s property. 

Artifacts depicting barn swallows can be found throughout the world: in hieroglyphs at the pyramids in Egypt, on Bronze Age pottery, in cave paintings in France and Greece, and on Native American Lakota art.

Distinguished by their deeply forked tails, dark blue bodies and reddish breasts, barn swallows can be seen swooping low over the water and land in search of flying insects to feed their young. Barn swallows once built their mud nests in caves and on rock cliffs throughout North America, but they now construct nests almost exclusively on built structures, such as barns, sheds, underpasses and abandoned buildings. 

Humans and barn swallows have long coexisted peacefully, but several factors have dramatically reduced the birds’ numbers, one of which is a lack of available structures for the birds to use. Learning more about their breeding and migration habits, and providing more places they can use to nest, could help researchers determine how to protect them.

Rebecca Safran, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at CU Boulder, and her group of student researchers have teamed up with Aaron Treher, lecturer in the Department of Art and Art History who developed a novel approach to conservation that’s part site-specific artwork and part structure to entice the birds into making it their home. If successful, the structure could be a model for similar ones in urban areas.

“The conservation status of barn swallows is declining precipitously,” Safran said. “Our goal with this installation was to create a structure that not only highlights the science and conservation concerns, but also the interesting co-existence we have with barn swallows and shows that they really do live side-by-side with us.”

Barn swallows can be found in Colorado from mid-April until the end of September and lay multiple broods during that time. They build a cup nest from mud pellets and feeds on insects caught in flight. The barn swallow’s song is a cheerful warble. One of the benefits of our coexistence with them is that a barn swallow consumes more than 800 mosquitoes a day.

Molly McDermott, a PhD student, and Treher, an MFA graduate, collaborated on the wooden sculpture that has been installed at a barn swallow colony on private land north of Boulder. 

The site-specific artwork is attached to the barn on land owned by Richard Cargill. Safran and her team have been researching barn swallows at Cargill’s barn for more than 10 years. One of the tagged birds has been returning to the barn for seven years. It’s one of several study sites in Boulder County used by Safran and her team this summer. They have studied barn swallows throughout most of their breeding distribution in Asia, Europe,the Middle East, North Africa and North America.

The creation of the artwork began as Treher’s thesis work for his master’s degree. He named the structure the Observation Station. Its distinctive shape—a horizontal box stacked askew on top of a vertical box—is his interpretation of what a structure might look like if barn swallows designed it and how they might stack the two segments. Read more ...