Bloomsburg University Student Leads Tree Swallow Study

March 10, 2019

MIFFLIN TWP. — With each clank of a metal tool, Victoria Roper drove a steel rod deeper into icy ground. “You’ve got to really want it,” said Roper, who this winter has been pounding in supports for bird boxes so she can learn if tree swallows breed as successfully in artificial wetlands as they do in diminishing, natural wetlands this spring. Her project began at Thanksgiving when her father, Tim, drove from New Orleans to Bloomsburg University, she is earning a master’s degree in biology, to help her build nest boxes. Painted brown, the boxes have a tiny circular hole for the birds to enter. When Roper hides 50 feet away and snaps a fishing line, a cover closes the hole, temporarily trapping the birds. She will open a hinged side of the nest box to retrieve swallows, which she will release after weighing them, checking their sex and slipping an aluminum band over their legs. Roper chose to study swallows because they tolerate contact, whereas other birds might abandon nests after being handled by a human researcher. After the swallows migrate to Pennsylvania from Florida, Cuba and other southern lands, they will scout for sites near water and start nesting by mid-April. When birds begin laying eggs, Roper hopes to check each feather-lined nest daily. Before then, she has plenty more work to do, reinforcing the poles that support the nest boxes and attaching baffles to repel black snakes, opossums, raccoon, chipmunks, cats and other predators that can eat eggs or baby swallows. Adult swallows — with electric blue feathers, creamy white undersides and “V” notches in their tails — zip around water in figure-eights, vacuuming in mosquitoes and other insects as they fly. Roper also plans to study the populations of insects, which she will net on water and land, where she also will chart different types of vegetation. “I want to understand what they’re eating,” she said. Standing water leads to swarms of mosquitoes and other insects, and the Columbia County farmland where Roper had permission to place the boxes sloped down to a pond ringed by brush and wetlands bristling with cattails. These wetlands, where the landowners have been noticing tree swallows and red-breasted barn swallows for more than 35 years, are natural. Because natural wetlands are diminishing, tree swallows are likely to nest in wetlands that people have created or restored. Roper and the professor overseeing her research, Dr. Lauri Green, wonder if the birds will be able to hatch and raise as many babies in wetlands shaped by humans as they rear in natural wetlands. The study will contain results from the natural wetlands near the farm, two artificial wetlands and one restored wetland. For example, Green said the study will look at the percentage of boxes where swallows build nests and the number of eggs per nest at different sites. Green, assistant professor of biological and allied health sciences, will supervise Roper’s field work and offer coaching when Roper writes a thesis. Also, Green will guide undergraduate students including Amanda Aulebach, Jessica Paoletti and Celeste Takach, who have helped set up nest boxes. They also plan to help observe the nesting pairs and their offspring through the end of the school year and, perhaps, into the summer. Takach, a sophomore, joined the project to get experience that will help her land an internship. She wants to work as an environmental consultant after she graduates. Green said she is interested in questions that the undergraduates can answer about the swallows, such as how often they leave the nest, how long they spend gathering food and how frequently they feed their babies. She would like other student researchers who raise additional questions to continue studying tree swallows on the properties for years. On Presidents Day at the farmland near the pond and in the wetlands, Green, Roper, Takach Paoletti and Aulebach stretched a yellow surveyor’s tape measure to mark locations for nest boxes. At the farm and other sites combined, they have installed 99 of the 145 boxes that Roper and her father built. The boxes are 91 feet apart so the territorial swallows won’t clash with neighbors. At each site, they pounded a steel rod or rebar into ground. Next, working with bare hands in 33-degree temperatures, they connected two pieces of shiny silver conduit to form a 6-foot pole that they slipped over the rebar. Then they attached the boxes to poles with clasps screwed into the back panels with an electric drill. Green said local businesses donated the wood, rebar and conduit, but she and Roper had to learn to cut and assemble the pieces. “In the field,” Green said, “You learn a lot about construction.” Contact the writer: kjackson@standardspeaker.com