A bird habitat enhancement program launched on June 29 at Playa Vista’s Ballona Discovery Park.
“This project came together as a synergy of causes. It’s right next to the Playa Vista Elementary School, so it gives us a chance to teach kids ecology,” said Lisa Fimiani, the executive director of the Friends of Ballona Wetlands.
On the face of it, Ballona wetlands are the ideal habitat for insect eating birds with plenty of food and water, but until now there’s been a local housing crisis for tree swallows, tachycineta bicolor, a migratory bird that weighs less than an ounce but typically winters in Mexico or further south.
Locally, it has had to confront major habitat loss. At one point, its favored coastal wetlands extended from Santa Monica to San Pedro, an area now filled with heavy development.
“Tree swallows can do well in urban areas,” said Eric Strauss, Loyala Marymount University biology professor and director of the park. “But the swallows make their homes in dead trees. People clear out the dead wood, thinking it’s unsightly. Then we have to compensate for the loss of the birds by using pesticides. The birds are nearly as effective with none of the residue.”
To encourage the insectivores to resettle here, researchers from LMU’s Center for Urban Resilience worked with parents at the new Playa Vista Elementary School on an innovative project to install birdhouses on the park’s walking path between the school and the wetlands. Thirty boxes were erected Saturday.
The project involved multiple schools. Westchester High School Natural and Environmental Magnet students built the boxes. LMU students will be assessing their success seeing if they attract the birds, monitoring the number of eggs laid and counting the birds that hatch.
After eggs are laid or while the birds are young, tree swallows have been known to dive at much larger animals, including humans to keep them away, one reason which the boxes are set too high for the elementary students to peer in. Tree swallows are renowned fliers and can catch insects with their bills in mid air. Here’s how they sound.
The birdhouses are designed with metal predator shields to prevent invasion by bigger birds and a hinged door for unobtrusive observation from a ladder.
“Today, we can even extend a video camera through the entry hole to take a look inside,” Strauss said. “We’re working with local ornithologists to make sure the birds get color banded, to build up a demographic profile of the population.”
Parents at the school adopted birdhouses at $100 each painting them in gentle, heat friendly pastels to welcome the new residents. Everybody who adopted a box at the end of the year will get information about who nested in the box, along with a family picture, and how they did.
“This was an amazing collaborative community project. We raised over $10,000 for the school. Parents, volunteers and local artists painted the boxes,” said Julie Hoang, president of Friends of Playa Vista School.
Jim Buton, the president and CEO of Playa del Rey’s environmental engineering firm Eco Kai, doffed his suit, but picked up a drill. He was volunteering his time to erect the bird boxes.
”It’s a project we believe it. We’ve been involved in the restoration of the wetlands for about 12 years,” he said.
LMU’s Center for Urban Resilience works in the relatively new field of urban ecology combining history, social science, philosophy and ethics to create habitable and resilient neighborhoods.
“The ultimate test of a neighborhood is if you love to live there,” Strauss said.
Soon we’ll see if the tree swallows agree and show it by moving in.