Signs of the Times – The Gypsy Swallows of Zamboanga

May 15, 2013


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During a recent media familiarization tour to Zamboanga City arranged by the Department of Tourism regional offices of Western and Northern Mindanao, and Cebu Pacific Air, our party of travel writers and officials from Northern Mindanao were intrigued by a cryptic entry in our official itinerary.

It said “Birdwatching at Zamboanga City’s main thoroughfare.” Nothing extraordinary about the item itself, it was the time that intrigued us: 8:00 o’clock in the evening!

Barn Swallows perched on wires along downtown Zamboanga City's main thoroughfare Climaco Avenue (photo by Val Martinito)

It was only when we were already passing through Climaco Avenue (formerly known as Guardia Nacional Street) the evening of our first day tour that we understood why DOT included the cryptic entry.

Perched on the electric wires along both sides of Zamboanga City’s main street were thousands upon thousands of small birds, spaced perfectly apart as if in military formation! They occupied not only one but almost all strands of the so-called spaghetti wires strung along the thoroughfare: electric wires, telephone wires, cable TV wires and what-have-you.

Barn swallows perched on electric wires running along Maharlika Bridge in Cagayan de Oro City (photo by Val Martinito)

Many of us were so awestruck by the sight that our hosts had to stop our vehicles to allow us to get down and gawk.

Mary June Bugante, the regional tourism director for Region  9(Western Mindanao) told us they were barn and pacific swallows, migratory birds whose arrival in the region usually heralded the coming of spring in nearby temperate countries like China and Japan.

Swallows are agile flyers and seldom seen near the ground. Unlike swifts and house martins, the swallow has a deeply forked tail which can measure 8 centimeters (cms.) in length and a beautiful red throat. They can often be seen perching on wires, especially around migration time, when they gather in flocks. They are famous for their incessant trilling.

“They started coming in great numbers and perching on our electric wires some ten years ago during the tenure of our late Mayor Caling Lobregat,” Ms. Bugante said. “For some reason, they have decided to make Zamboanga City their home and never left.”

The Pacific Swallow or Hill Swallow (Hirundo tahitica) is a small (13 cm.) passerine bird of the swallow family.

A passerine is a bird of the order Passeriformes, which includes more than half of all bird species. Sometimes known as perching birds , the passerines form one of the most diverse terrestrial vertebrate orders; with over 5,000 identified species, it has roughly twice as many species as the largest of the mammal orders, the Rodentia.  It contains more than 110 families, the second most of any order of vertebrates (after the Perciformes).

The Pacific Swallow breeds in tropical southern Asia from southern India and Sri Lanka across to South East Asia and the islands of the south Pacific. It is resident apart from some local seasonal movements. This bird is associated with coasts, but is increasingly spreading to forested uplands.

It has a blue back with browner wings and tail, a red face and throat, and dusky underparts. It differs from the Barn Swallow in its shorter and less forked tail. It is similar in behavior to other aerial insectivores, such as other swallows and the unrelated swifts. It is a fast flyer and feeds on insects, especially flies, while airborne.

The Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), on the other hand, is the most widespread species of swallow in the world.  It is a distinctive passerine bird with blue upperparts, a long, deeply forked tail and curved, pointed wings. It is found in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.

The Barn Swallow is a bird of open country and normally uses man-made structures to breed and consequently has spread with human expansion. It builds a cup nest from mud pellets in barns or similar structures and feeds on insects caught in flight.

This species lives in close association with humans, and its insect-eating habits mean that it is tolerated by man; this acceptance was reinforced in the past by superstitions regarding the bird and its nest.

Back home, and over a month after our visit to Zamboanga, we were gazing out at the Cagayan River over the Maharlika Bridge while waiting for the traffic to move, when my wife Gardy said, “Look at the birds on the wire!” I turned around and saw what were unmistakably the same species of birds that have made downtown Zamboanga City their home perched on the power lines strung beside the bridge! What were they doing in Cagayan de Oro?

But that wasn’t the end of it. Myrna Aboniawan Siose, a friend with whom I share many advocacies through the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro headed by Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, also had a similar experience in Agusan del Sur.

“One evening (January 30, 2013), when I was traveling back from a seven-day disaster response work in Baganga, Davao Oriental, we stopped for gas at San Francisco, Agusan del Sur.

While having our tank refilled at a gas station near the parish church, I asked the seminarians traveling with us to get down for a while to stretch arms and back. As we walked around, we noticed that the electric wires crossing the intersections were thick with birds…plenty…hundreds in one strip of wire. There were at least five wires in that intersection and it was really so amazing to look at them occupying every inch in disciplined stance.

The few minutes gas refill became a 45 minute “birds-watching” so we decided to have coffee in a sidewalk painitan. We were so amazed at the sight and the stories of the vendor how the birds would find their place on the wires each night. We bid farewell to the birds who were standing steady-still on the wires bringing with us our own interpretation of their presence there. It was 10:45pm.

That trip to Baganga was my fourth so I would have seen enough of the roads and the wires alongside but it was only in San Francisco I saw these swallows…quever? Their presence there and then may well be telling us something…tilimad-on or pahinumdum tingale.”



We turned to our good friend, Roel Dahonog, Ecosystems Management Specialist from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Region 10, for an answer to the mystery of the traveling swallows.

“These are birds belonging to genus Hirundo, the most common of which is the barn swallow, commonly seen perched on electric wires and abandoned buildings,” he noted. “They are migratory birds. Most of these birds are now returning to their places of origin, where it is now spring time. The Philippines is one of their feeding areas as they travel to other South East Asian countries.”

He said swallows, although not water birds, are included and listed under “Other Species” (to differentiate them from  water birds) in the Official Counting Forms of the Asian Water Bird Census conducted every January by the agency to record and analyze population trends of  migratory bird species passing through Northern Mindanao.

For 2011, the DENR-10 census for Hirundo species show a count of 225 for two sites; 140 for 2012 in four sites and 141 in five sites for 2013,” Mr. Dahonog said. “Our counting areas include the Sinacaban and Bonifacio wetland (coastal) areas at Misamis Occidental, Mukas and  Karomatan (Kolambugan) and Matampay-Bukana (Lala) in Lanao del Norte; Opol, Alubijid, Gingoog and Magsaysay coastal areas for Misamis Oriental and the Pulangi IV hydroelectric power plant at Maramag, Bukidnon.”

For 2013, the census indicates a slight decrease in number of species and individuals counted.

“We attribute the decrease to weather conditions during the counting period,” Mr. Dahonog noted. “In the last two weeks of January 2013, Mindanao was affected by the tail-end-of the-cold-front phenomenon. Our counting time is daybreak to 10 AM or 3:00 pm to sundown (a uniform schedule for those conducting the census). It was either rainy or cloudy almost throughout the day during the counting period. Migratory birds are usually hiding or take cover under  mangrove areas if weather is not good.”

DENR-10 conducts the Asian Water Bird Census since Northern Mindanao is part of the East Asian–Australasian Flyway, one of the world’s great flyways. A flyway is a flight path used by migratory birds which usually spans continents and oceans.

At its northernmost point, the flyway stretches eastwards from the Taimyr Peninsula in Russia to Alaska. Its southern end covers Australia and New Zealand. Between these two points the flyway covers much of East Asia including China, Japan, Korea, South East Asia (including the Philippines) and western Pacific.

Extending across the most densely populated part of the world, migratory birds face extreme pressures within this flyway which passes through 22 countries with approximately 55 migratory species travelling along it, numbering about five million birds

So is some climate or population pressure making the swallows settle down in urban areas instead of returning to their traditional habitats?

Swallows, swifts, and house martins are all summer visitors migrating to and from southern hemispheres. Traditionally the return of the swallows has always been associated with the coming of Spring.  They are believed by some communities to bring good luck. This is why farmers do not destroy their nests and swallows can re-use them for many years.

The Asian Water Bird Census is conducted annually by DENR in partnership with BirdLife International, a global Partnership of conservation organizations which advocates the conservation of birds, their habitats and global biodiversity and works with people for the sustainable use of natural resources.

It is the World’s largest partnership of conservation organizations, with over 100 partner organizations. Together, the BirdLife Partnership is the world’s leading authority on the status of birds, their habitats and the issues and problems affecting bird life.

BirdLife International has identified some 2,293 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in all 28 countries and territories in the Asia region – many important for migratory birds.

The selection of IBAs has been a particularly effective way of identifying conservation priorities. IBAs are key sites for conservation – small enough to be conserved in their entirety and often already part of a protected-area network. They do one (or more) of three things:

Hold significant numbers of one or more globally threatened species; Are one of a set of sites that together hold a suite of restricted-range species or biome-restricted species; and have exceptionally large numbers of migratory or congregatory species

Forty three percent of the region’s IBAs lie wholly outside of formal protected areas. Hence, BirdLife has produced two documents which outlines the threats and provides actions to effectively conserve these sites.

Cebu Pacific flies from Cagayan de Oro to Zamboanga three times a week every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Frequent flyers along this route can now enjoy the spectacle of the birds on the wire at either destination. Zamboanga City will host this year’s 9th Philippine Bird Festival organized yearly by  the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines on October 4-6, 2013.

Hopefully, we also find out the reasons why the swallows have decided to stay over in these two places instead of flying home to their usual habitats.

“We are also using presence of migratory birds as indicator of the health of our coastal areas. These birds depend on coastal areas for their food while on their long journey,” Mr. Dahonog said. “If the count shows a significant decrease in the number of migratory birds, it most probably indicates that something is wrong in our coastal areas.”

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