This Project Is for the Birds
Updated: Jul 21, 2021
by Kelt Wilska
On one of your drives through town last month, did you happen to notice someone on a ladder climbing the pond-facing side of the historic Shaker Mill? If you did, you were witness to the welcoming party for West Stockbridge’s newest residents: cliff swallows.
Most Berkshirites are probably quite familiar with the barn swallow, that beautiful but noisy fork-tailed neighbor that darts in and out of dusty attics to build its nests and leave its droppings. Far less common are cliff swallows, the square-tailed and red-rumped relatives of the barn dwellers. As European settlers began to build and farm in the Northeast, these birds likewise moved in from the South and West to take advantage of the agricultural spoils—a perfect blend of easy shelter, nutritious insects, and mud for building nests.
These nests are painstakingly constructed one bead of mud at a time as the birds fly back and forth from streamside quarries to their building sites, often tucked under the eaves of barns. The result is a rough cone-shaped structure with a simple hole for entry and exit.
Sadly, as agriculture fades in importance from our day-to-day lives, so too fades the habitat for the cliff swallow. Suburbanization, forest regrowth, and competition from non-native house sparrows all contribute to their decline. Cliff swallow populations have declined 48% in Massachusetts since 1985 and are designated as threatened species in New Hampshire. They have stopped breeding entirely in Rhode Island.
Which brings us back to West Stockbridge. A few years ago, Mara Silver, founder of western Massachusetts-based Swallow Conservation, noticed that cliff swallows were taking a particular liking to the eaves of the Shaker Mill. This nesting site is one of fewer than fifty in the entire state. Using fired clay pots (Mara is a ceramicist), she affixes new nests to these hot spots in the hopes of encouraging colony growth.
So next time you take a walk across the Mill Pond bridge, keep an eye out for some watchful swallow heads poking out of their new homes. Shaker Mill Books is proud to sponsor this bright moment of conservation during such worrisome times. For more information about cliff swallows, visit swallowconservation.org.
Note: We are fortunate to have West Stockbridge’s Mati Kiin of Kiin Media capturing this unique phenomenon of nature. We hope to share his film with the community in the coming months.