Game Range Ramblin's

Game Range Articles by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder




Marvelous animal adaptation

July 13, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder

FWP's Ron Pierce is a pretty good naturalist, even if he is a fisheries biologist.

And, Greg Neudecker must be a fairly useful wildlife biologist, even if he does work for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I base these conclusions on a chance encounter that John Firebaugh and I enjoyed for a few minutes with Ron the other day. John and I had stopped in at Trixi's in Ovando to pick up a Coke and candy bar for the road, and there was Ron with a local landowner, catching a late lunch.

After exchanging the customary pleasantries, it became clear that Ron had just successfully willed a couple of unsuspecting wildlife biologists to his table by the sheer telepathic force of his enthusiasm over his latest field observation.

"Hey, I've got something you guys might be interested in," Ron began.

I was initially disappointed to learn he wasn't offering to pay for our Cokes, but he did prove to be correct. He did have something to say that interested us almost as much.

"Greg Neudecker and I were looking at a possible fish habitat project on the river a little while ago, and he showed me where lots of swallows were flying all around, obviously nesting in the steep cutbank."

"Be nice," I lectured myself silently. "He's a fish guy. Maybe he's never lifted his eyes from the water before to notice that swallows nest in the steep, sandy slopes above rivers. But, geez, I hope he doesn't want to know what kind of swallows they are."

John and I soon learned that Ron had more on his mind than swallow identification, but the incident did prompt me later to look up the swallow family in the Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds (by John K. Terres).

It seems almost certain that Ron and Greg were seeing bank swallows. They are the smallest of the North American swallows, with wingspread of 10-11 inches. They have brown backs, and a brown band across the white breast, just below the throat. Bank swallows dig nesting holes in steep sandy banks along streams, lakes and oceans, or also in the steep sides of gravel pits, railroad and highway embankments cut by man.

As Ron was talking to us, I had cliff swallows on the brain, not bank swallows. Fortunately, I've learned to keep my mouth shut on at least a few occasions. It turns out that cliff swallows construct mud or clay nests under rock outcrops or building eaves. This was not what Ron was seeing.

"So, we were walking along the top of the cutslope," Ron continued, "overlooking the river, and there were these holes in the ground everywhere. Not in the cutslope, but on the flatland atop the bank. The holes seemed to be on a line about 2 feet from the edge of the bank, and spaced about 2 feet apart."

"How many holes would you say there were?" I asked, as if this knowledge might somehow allow me to make sense of it all.

"I'd say there were 20 or so," Ron replied. "Greg had seen this before and he asked me what I thought we were looking at."

I reached for my Coke to kill time, hoping John would hazard a guess that might distract Ron's attention from me, but I needn't have worried. Ron moved directly to the punch line.

"It turns out they were badger holes. A badger had been burrowing into the swallow cavities from above and raiding the nests. You could see nest material scattered around the entrances and just inside the badger holes." Ron said Greg thinks it was the work of a single badger who learned the technique of coming in through the roof or walls of a swallow nesting cavity, where an approach through the front opening would be treacherous, if not impossible.

"Wow, I've never heard of that!" I exclaimed, the weight of being called upon to contribute knowledge having been lifted from my shoulders. "Was the badger eating eggs or young chicks?"

That's when John made his mark.

"It depends on whether it was breakfast or dinner."

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