Swallows return, but ...

‘No vacancy’ sign awaits at their usual courthouse roost
By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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The swallows have returned to Auburn. But they’re far from home. The birds are finding a century-old welcome mat has been pulled out from under them at the Placer County Courthouse in Auburn. They’ve been flying to the building but finding their traditional nesting spots in the eaves are now off-limits behind netting installed after they left last year. Auburn’s Steve Wardwell said he watched the birds swarm around the courthouse Monday afternoon but end up leaving. Wardwell watched from his appraiser’s office window across the street as some of the swallows tried to perch on ledges where they have nested in the past only to fly away in frustration. On Tuesday, they hadn’t returned. Wardwell said that while he understands there are concerns about bird feces eating into the historic building’s brick and mortar, the netting may be creating another. “That problem would be ‘where are they going to go?’” Wardwell said. “But they’re likely more adaptable than we think.” The birds are returning from migrations of up to 6,000 miles from South America to find that netting has been placed for the first time to cover favorite nesting spots around the covered ledges at the 111-year-old landmark. A contractor installed the netting this past fall for the Placer County. The county co-owns the building and grounds with the state courts system. The $36,000 netting installation is supposed to prevent bird droppings in the spring and summer from nesting swallows. The droppings eat into metal and brick grouting, create a slippery safety hazard on walkways, and account for extra expenditures to clean soiled surfaces, Facility Services Department Director Jim Durfee said. Employees have also had to deal with an unwelcome seasonal barrage of bird excrement on their cars and the odd dive bombings on their persons. Durfee said the main concern over nesting swallows involves public health problems relating to mites and bugs the birds bring to a nesting site. “We haven’t had an infestation at the courthouse but we have had them at other county buildings, including the Tahoe sheriff’s headquarters,” Durfee said. Melanie Barton, county museums division administrator, said that the returning swallows are doing what they have normally done in previous years when netting was not up. The birds have been flying in and flying out again since at least the start of the month. Last week, the swallows were at the courthouse en masse twice. “They don’t come and stay right away,” Barton said. “They’re definitely looking for a place to nest. I hope they can find another home.” Barton said she’s no bird expert so doesn’t know how long the swallows will continue to fly to the courthouse before they find nesting areas elsewhere. Last fall, cliff swallow built about 100 nests at the courthouse. Over the winter, renovations worth more than $1 million were completed, including waterproofing the dome and colonnade above the main part of the building. The see-through black-mesh netting is virtually invisible to passers-by. Nests were removed without a permit during the time between the end of nesting season in the late summer and mid-February. At the time, Durfee said the netting was intended to be a “humane, passive” approach to their removal. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at