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Murder most fowl? Mystery surrounds disappearance of Barrhaven bridge barn swallows

March 14, 2014

By Tom Spears
Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA — When barn swallows vanished after holding up a $24-million bridge replacement in Barrhaven last summer, officials never whispered the word “murdered”.

But newly released documents show the sudden disappearance stirred up a whodunit at Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources.

Enforcement officers investigated. Managers wrote memos. The minister was briefed.

Then the drama, like the birds, just went away.

Until now.

The Citizen has obtained emails from the MNR with brief but revealing passages that tell of the allegation and conclude that “we … don’t want to go there.”

The emails show a lawyer reported the shooting to MNR investigators, but officers couldn’t find enough evidence to lay charges, and soon closed the case.

The swallows had built two nests under the old bridge where Jockvale Road crosses the Jock River. The bridge was set for demolition to make room for a bigger new bridge, but the ministry stopped the work because barn swallows are endangered.

The next day, birders and reporters went to the site and found the birds had disappeared. Work eventually resumed, with conditions to protect the nest in case the swallows returned.

But the newly released documents show that a swallow shooting was reported to the MNR’s enforcement officers.

In December, the Citizen asked the MNR for documents related to the birds’ disappearance.

This week the ministry released dozens of emails released, which say:

• “On June 10th, MNR enforcement was provided information and requested to investigate alleged shooting of the Barn Swallows at this site. The matter was investigated, but officers found insufficient information to proceed with charges — the case is closed.”

This note gives no other details.

• An email from a senior official in the Kemptville office, which handles Ottawa, suggests the MNR was uneasy about news of the possible shooting going public. The email is written to the ministry spokeswoman in Toronto who answered reporters’ questions:

“Enforcement became involved June 10th, when a call came in through the consultant’s lawyer to enforcement, asking them to investigate birds allegedly being shot at the construction site — but, we do don’t (sic) want to go there — for you (sic) background only.”

The lawyer and consultant aren’t identified, though Ottawa had hired a consultant who looked for the barn swallows on June 8 and 9. It’s a city-owned bridge.

A “house note,” which briefs the minister on how to answer questions, suggests this response: “If asked about potential enforcement action/charges: MNR enforcement staff investigated this situation. No charges will be laid.”

• The birds were last seen around their nests on June 6, but they were missing June 7, 8 and 9. But on June 17 the ministry ordered that demolition of the old bridge had to wait.

Its reasoning was that barn swallows raise more than one brood in a summer, and they might return to the nest later. That made the abandoned nests still qualify as endangered species habitat until nesting season ended around Aug. 31.

• One email concerning the shooting has been withheld by the ministry, which says it could identify the tipster.

• The whole problem could have been avoided if someone had moved the nests away from the bridge before breeding season. MNR emails say the city was responsible for arranging this but didn’t.

By June 24 the records show work was ready to resume at the site, with Karson Konstruction agreeing to leave the empty nests undisturbed until Aug. 31, just in case the missing birds came back. A note says the minister and deputy minister were “very happy that a resolution was possible.”

Jan Harder, the area’s city councillor said it’s the first she has heard of a shooting.

“And it certainly wouldn’t be by the city. In fact we’ve gone to no small amount of trouble in trying to work with the ministry ... including putting special nest-type cups along the bridge so that if they did come back they have a place to nest.

“We’ve gone to the wall on it.” She also said there’s evidence the original nests had not been used “for years.”

Harder was furious last year when the construction was delayed, and still resents it.

“The bridge needs to open. There are 85,000 people that live there (Barrhaven) and this is a critical piece of infrastructure for Jockvale Road,” she said.

The news of a possible shooting has upset conservationists. Both Ontario Nature and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society say they hadn’t heard the suggestion until now, and hope the birds weren’t shot.

John Urquhart of Ontario Nature said Ontario’s Endangered Species Act is “world-renowned” for its flexibility because it allows flexibility for developers and still protects wildlife.

“It allows development of habitat that species at risk use as long as compensation is made such that the species benefits.”

Moving the nests before nesting season would have saved everyone trouble and protected the birds, he said.

Barn swallows are agile flyers that catch insects in mid-air and weigh only 17 to 20 grams, or less than one ounce.

The case of the birds clearly threw a wrench into the political machinery last June.

The emails show that at one point, the province was considering ordering protection of the nests for 14 months — through last summer’s nesting season and one extra year.

Meanwhile Harder said she would be less surprised if someone shot her area’s other famous birds, wild turkeys that chase pedestrians. They haven’t been seen all winter either.

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