Year 2 Of My Tree Swallow Nest Box Project With The City Of Richmond

Male Tree Swallow stands on guard near his nest box in Richmond - Photo: Melissa Hafting

This weekend we did our first nest box checks of the season. The pilot project I started last year is now in its second year. We started at Terra Nova Park. Here we checked 19 boxes and most of them were occupied with Tree Swallows. We had 1 nest with Black-capped Chickadee eggs. This was also a box used by Chickadees last year. 

    Inside a Tree Swallow Box at Terra Nova - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Black-capped Chickadee moss nest with 4 eggs at Terra Nova Park - Photo: Melissa H.

In one of the boxes I had a wasp nest. I am not allergic to wasps so we just dealt with it ourselves. Since the female in that box was on eggs we didn't want to leave the wasps in there building a nest. Tree Swallows will sit on nests and be pecked to death by House Sparrows so we figured she would also sit there and be stung to death If the nestlings ever hatched they also could be killed by wasps. We are very careful to open the box slowly and to not flush adults from the nest. I find Tree Swallows to be extremely tolerant but we still are super careful. In this case (to protect the female and eggs) we opted to flush the female from the nest and get rid of the wasps from inside the box. Amazingly we got rid of it quickly with a knife and extracted the wasps and small nest from the box without getting stung or falling off the ladder! Once we left the box, the female quickly flew back in to sit on her eggs. Females brood eggs for up to 15 mins and feed up to 7000 bugs a day to the young so we were glad we didn't make her job any tougher. Hopefully the wasps won't return to the nest. 

Adult female on nest at Terra Nova Park - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Adult Female Tree Swallows work very hard to feed their young to fledging - Photos: Melissa Hafting

In 3 of the boxes we noted a Northern Flicker had drilled at the entrance hole trying to excavate a nest. Unfortunately one of the boxes was made non-viable for the Tree Swallows and the Northern Flickers did not nest in any of the boxes. We have to now replace the front door on 3 of the boxes. I consulted with friends in the Cariboo, Clearwater and Vancouver who have lots of experience with nest boxes and Flickers doing this.  I decided to take the solution of Peter Ward by making a "sandwich hole." This is screwed on to the existing hole from the outside. It consists of a thin steel plate with a 1 3/8 inch hole in it, attached to a cedar strip with a 1 3/8 inch hole in it. The holes are aligned with one another. Once attached the swallows see only the cedar from the outside. It will look like this photo below. The piece in the photo gets screwed onto the front of the box with the metal side in. Hopefully this solution works as once the Flicker starts drilling it the bird will hit metal and the entrance hole won't be able to expand. Having a small hole is imperative for Tree Swallow nesting success because if not, predators and introduced aggressive species like Eurasian Starlings and House Sparrows can get in and kill them. Native competing birds like House Wrens can also get in and destroy the eggs.

Northern Flickers have tried to excavate a few of our Tree Swallow boxes wrecking this one

This part gets screwed onto the outside of the box (steel part in) to prevent Flickers excavating the hole

We noticed that in almost all of the nests with eggs had 6 eggs this year! This is unlike last year where most of the Tree Swallows laid only 5 eggs. This is a very good sign indeed!

This year the Tree Swallows are laying 6 eggs instead of 5!

At Garden City Park the pair was bag and had already laid 2 eggs. Last year the Heat Wave killed off some of their young. I am sure it is the same pair back at the same box. I am really hoping that the heat wave won't happen again this year. We have a Black-capped Chickadee pair using one nest box as well. Chickadees using the boxes are a plus and not a negative as they are native cavity nesters and are considered beneficial.

Male Tree Swallow nest box at Garden City Park - Photo: Melissa Hafting

At Garden City Lands we were mind blown by the success. In 20 of the boxes we had 17 nest boxes with eggs! 3 were empty. This is a huge increase from last year. Last year in the inaugural year we had 5 boxes with eggs. Again at this location all the boxes in use (17!!) had 6 eggs inside!! I was so incredibly happy to see this. At this location last year the birds had only 4-5 eggs inside. This park also never had a single Tree Swallow until I got the city to put in the boxes. It is true "if you build it they will come!" 

Checking Tree Swallow nest boxes at Garden City Lands in Richmond - Photo: Melissa Hafting

We have had a very cold and rainy spring so some of the boxes were totally surrounded by water. For some of the boxes only boots were needed, others needed waders and a couple a kayak! As we checked the boxes in the parks a few members of the public were asking us questions about the nest box project and people seemed really supportive, which was nice to see.

This park has turned out to be a really cool little hotspot and wetland. There was over 200 swallows there flying around, Barn, Violet-Green, Tree, Cliff and Northern Rough-winged.Also Vaux's Swifts have been there. I have found 4 Solitary Sandpipers there, Pectoral Sandpipers, Western and Least. Now a pair of Spotted Sandpipers are nesting there and Sora!. There are Pipits and healthy Savannah Sparrow numbers here. One day I had over 70 Savannahs. I am hoping something like a Phalarope, Stilt, Ibis or Avocet turns up and hopefully some Bank Swallows. The park is also supporting raptors like Northern Harriers, Barn Owls, Red-tailed and Coopers Hawks. There are so few green spaces in Richmond left that this park has been so important and truly draws in a lot of birds you would never expect there especially on migration. I was talking to my friend Larry and Rob this weekend and both are just as happy when a new bird shows up at their patch. However, Larry and I were chatting over text about some of the unexpected species found at new hotspots that he has discovered. It is truly exciting to see what birds turns up next and the diversity of birds that newly created habitat supports.

I watched many swallows (Violet-Green, Tree and Barn) collecting nesting material. I really wonder where are the Violet-Greens and Barns nesting because there is such a high number of them there. This park is situated in the middle of a very urban area. You have a strip mall right in front of it with a Walmart... so I really wonder where are all these swallows nesting! I hope on day to figure out the mystery.

A stunning male Tree Swallow at Garden City Lands - Photos: Melissa Hafting

So far this year things are off to a very successful start with the Tree Swallow Nest Box Project. Purple Martin Nest Box Project will begin in 2023 due to some unforeseen delays. That project can't come soon enough since the colony at Iona seems to be on a precipitous decline. I have seen 2 birds at Iona only this year and I could not confirm they were nesting either. I am hoping the location at Garry Point will be viable with birds being attracted by the nearby colony at Reifel across the river.

Female Tree Swallow at nest box at Garden City Lands - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Some young birders have asked to help me with cleaning out the boxes and monitoring. Young birder Toby came out today to see the process.  3 others came to see me in person as I was on the trail to tell me how happy they were about the success after they inquired in detail about how many eggs were inside and number of boxes used. It is so nice to see young people caring like this about the conservation of these species. Thank you to Ilya for all the help he gives me with checking the boxes.

At the end of  the day I entered all of the data into Project Nestwatch. I will be back with another update once the young are born.


  1. Amazing work!! Fantastic that so many boxes are occupied!

  2. Thank you for initiating and continuing with this project! Excellent work! Great news on the success rate of the boxes.

    1. Thanks so much Brian. It is nice to see so many using the boxes!

  3. What a great initiative you started fantastic to see how it is succeeding!!


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