Weather 2 years ago might be responsible

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

MONUMENT ROCKS -- Two years ago there was something of a swallow holocaust on the massive limestone pillars that abruptly rise up into the air on the otherwise treeless plains of western Gove County.

There were hundreds, if not thousands, of swallow carcasses littering the ground beneath the mud nests that cling so precariously to the soft limestone.

But not at all unlike the famous swallows of Capistrano, the swallows of Monument Rocks -- or its smaller cousin, the Little Pyramids, not to mention the badlands near Castle Rock -- haven't returned.

Only a handful of swallows are now nesting on the vertical walls of Monument Rocks, their mud nests rebuilt.

Gone are the days when swallows danced and darted in the sky surrounding the chalk pyramids, as Monument Rocks is known as locally.

The reason why they are missing is almost as elusive as the birds themselves.

"If they have any sense of fidelity, they might not be coming back," said Elmer Finck, a wildlife biologist and chairman of the biology department at Fort Hays State University.

There's no suggestion, based on the breeding bird surveys that's he's taken part in, that cliff swallows are declining.

"I really don't know what the cause of that could be," Finck said.

Instead, he suggested contacting Charles R. Brown, a University of Tulsa professor who is perhaps the nation's foremost authority on cliff swallows. He was brought in to offer advice on how best to get the swallows of Capistrano back to the mission, rather than to a nearby country club.

Finck said it's possible that the swallows at Monument Rocks and elsewhere have abandoned the sites because the nests were damaged in the weather-related events in 2008.

Rebuilding a nest isn't that easy, he said, and swallows typically add on to them or repair them.

Brown, in western Nebraska for summer researching swallows, agreed that after a serious weather event it can be a "long time before any return to a given site."

"We had some colonies in western Nebraska wiped out by cold and wet weather in 1996, and it took 10 or more years before cliff swallows returned to certain of those sites. It's as if the collective 'memory' of a given site is lost when there are no survivors, and it takes a somewhat random process of rediscovery of nesting sites by naive birds before the colony is reoccupied."

In western Nebraska, where he's conducting his research, Brown said that over the last 15 to 20 years the birds have gradually abandoned natural cliff nesting sites and moved onto artificial sites such as bridges and highway culverts. "This has resulted in almost none of the traditional cliff sites now being used, even though the cliff swallow population in the area remains high or increasing," he said. "The birds are just redistributing themselves away from cliff sites, probably because they are more successful on bridges."