It was a few minutes past noon when my phone rang, the Director was calling. He told me that I was to join MNH Curator for birds Dr. Juan Carlos Gonzales to observe and document some birds in Batangas City with Vice-Chancellor Vicky Espaldon and we would have to leave before 2PM. I was not prepared at all, it was kind of a quick shot in the arm but fortunately I left a digital camera with a nearly exhausted battery at the office. I asked a former officemate to lend me a hard disk camera with a 1.7x telephoto lens so that I can also take videos.

After I have quickly charged my camera battery and secured the video camera from my friend, I met with Sir JC and Ma'm Vicky at the lower campus. We left in a van shortly after 2PM and headed to Batangas City. In the van, Ma'm Vicky told us of a request by the Batangas City Environment and Natural Resources Office for an assessment of a problem caused by birds locally known as "layang-layang", so all the while I thought we will be capturing isolated photos and videos of these small and fast-flying birds.

We arrived before 4PM at the Batangas City's Bulwagan ng Kapayapaan at Kapaligiran, a renovated four-story office, with green architecture and fitted with solar panels. It was a nice showcase of eco-friendly governance amidst the expanding boom of industrial Batangas province. Ma'm Vicky, a Batanguenyo, told us that she and her team have been assisting the city government in assessing the ecological impacts of Batangas' industries.

Oliver Gonzales, head of the City Environment Office of Batangas City, came later and sat with us and started to tell of his office's woes in handling the birds. I was surprised that the small problem was actually, in terms of social impact, a big one. Oliver said that the birds, migrants from other countries and on a stop-over here in the Philippines, seem to be overstaying, and are probably even multiplying. He says that the swallows have landed in the city back in 2010 and are now estimated to number 200,000.

After being shown pictures of the birds, Sir JC said that these were definitely Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica), migratory species that winters in tropical climates like the Philippines to escape the frigid northern fall and winter temperatures; and that they came most probably from China and Japan. The Philippines is on a major migration highway and several species of birds pass by the country when they go north to south, and back.

According also to Sir JC, Barn swallows breed in northern latitudes, and are known to leave the Philippines during the spring (March/April) to nest, then return in the fall (September/November) to winter.

Oliver said that people are concerned that these swallows might be carrying diseases such as the avian flu. But JC says that people should not worry as swallows only eat insects and cannot be infected by the flu that afflicts domesticated fowls. According to the curator, even if the swallows get sick while staying in another country, they would not reach the Philippines alive and would just die out in the sea if they tried to fly with the others.

While eating snacks prepared by our hosts, we revolve our freehand discussions on what measures can be drawn up to better manage the birds. JC raised that it would be a matter of embracing the presence of the swallows and people must learn to adapt. But Oliver countered that the almost daily cleaning of the streets littered with bird feces is taking a toll on the city government's purse, not to mention the bad illusion that the local government unit is not doing enough to address the nuisance.

We started packing and got ready to go the swallow's roosting areas in P. Burgos Street and Rizal Avenue, a mere three blocks away from the City ENRO. It was about 5:30PM and the birds, according to Oliver, will start to arrive by 6PM.

Walking down the length of the street, we saw bird droppings everywhere and stained portions of the streets underneath the power and telephone cables where the birds go down for rest. We set up our cameras and wait for the swarm.

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It was nearly dusk, about 6:00PM, when the swallows appear from nowhere and litter the sky. They came in waves, in melodramatic circling patterns and found places within a two-block radius. They perched on lines, trees, building roofs and crevices, oblivious to the noisy vehicular and pedestrian traffic below. Then it showered bird poop. People walked fast and sought shelter, others opened their umbrellas and hid under their bags while crossing the streets. It became obvious why the public, probably amazed in the past of the sightings, have become cross with the birds.

It took just under ten minutes for the 200,000 or so birds to occupy the two blocks and for newbies like us to see it happen, it was actually an amazing experience. JC said that this was the first time he encountered an incoming swarm, as he had just only seen birds already perched in other areas he has visited.

According to JC, it looks like the barn swallows are now preferring urban roosts, as there have been several reports already that they have been roosting in areas in Quezon City, Muntinlupa City and Zamboanga City.

JC posits that urban roosting is advantageous to the barn swallows. There could be many possible reasons for it, but according to JC, swallows staying in urban areas during the night avert the risk of eaten by larger birds, snakes, lizards and other predators. The warmer temperature and the lessened draft inside the city may also be good conditions. But one thing that we noticed is that the birds are unfazed by the presence of streetlights and large lit signages. JC said that birds are sensitive to lights and these should have deterred them from roosting in the busy thoroughfare.

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One thing that ornithologists like him can do, JC said, is to start mapping the sites and make approximate densities adding that they can probably also do a nationwide study to monitor conditions suited for roosting swallows.

JC also said that it would be better if researchers start to track them and see where they come from and where will they go next. According to the professor, tracking and monitoring is for the long haul and may require a bit of effort but the difficulty can be offset with community participation.

Birds can be captured and sprayed with eco-friendly paint and then released back, he said. People, students and schools can help track them by reporting sightings of birds with sprayed-on colours to the monitoring team, JC said.


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