As the sounds of birds of prey screeched from nearby speakers, the last five members of St. Margaret's Calendar Club serenely enjoyed key lime pie and coffee at a strategically placed table in the Veterans Memorial Park picnic shelter in Richfield.
Deep in conversation, the old friends from St. Peter's Catholic Church ignored the barn swallows that perched nervously in the rafters near gray smudges that marked where their nests had been.
The swallows have been a fixture at the picnic shelter for decades, but Richfield's tolerance for the swallows has finally been exhausted. When people who rent the shelter for events began complaining about the birds' droppings and the way they sometimes swooped over people, the city decided to evict the swallows.
It hasn't been easy. Last month, someone cut the wires on speakers the city was using to broadcast the sounds of raptors in an attempt to chase the swallows away. The city began sending workers with hooks and high-pressure water hoses to knock down the mud nests as they were being built.
Feds are watching
An avid birder reported the city to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for allegedly destroying nests when they had eggs in them, which violates federal law. The birds have protected status.
Jim Topitzhofer, the city's director of recreation services, denies that nests with eggs in them have been destroyed.
"We have been in contact with [Fish and Wildlife] many times over the last few weeks, and we came up with this policy by working with them last fall," Topitzhofer said. "They're aware of what we're doing and they're fine with it.
"It's important for us to be fully compliant."
Richfield resident and birder Scott Meyer, who tracks breeding birds in the park and leads birding tours there, said he knows the city has removed nests with eggs. Late last month, he said, he climbed a ladder to check a nest that was so near the shelter's ceiling that he had to use a hand mirror to see whether it was occupied. He said it contained eggs and was removed later that week.
Meyer believes the city's concerns about the birds are overblown. But if the city really wants the birds to move, he said, it should stop using ineffective methods like the raptor calls and install permanent features like netting that will make the birds go away.
"Is it ethical to let these birds waste a whole breeding season by building a nest once a week instead of putting netting up?" he asked.
The shelter is the site of the city's Saturday farmers market, is rented for events like family reunions, and is used every day when the weather is nice by people who drop by, like the St. Peter's church ladies. Many of the tables in the 120-by-60 foot shelter are positioned between rafters to try to avoid the swallows' droppings.
"If they are making a mess and you're here for a family gathering, you don't want to be bothered by them," said Marge Byers, one of the St. Peter's picnickers.
Her friend Elaine Johnson said the swallows weren't nearly as intrusive as Florida sea gulls, which sail down to snatch food off picnickers' plates. And on this day, Rosemary Lovett said, the swallows "are not bothering us at all. We enjoy watching the birds."
But Topitzhofer said that last year the city refunded money to one group that rented the shelter and said the birds had ruined their gathering. And "from a sanitary and health standpoint, there's bird droppings on the picnic tables," he said. "It just feels like something that is not a good, compatible use with people eating there."
Netting may be added
Over the years, the city has filled some corners in the shelter roof with plywood coverings, and recently added spikes around lights and electrical conduits. Removal crews try to visit the shelter daily to knock nests down, Topitzhofer said. He said crews are supposed to get on ladders to inspect nests or, if they are inaccessible, use binoculars to make sure they do not contain eggs.
"We've been very clear, if you see any in there, that's where it stops," he said.
About a dozen birds were still present in the shelter last week. Meyer said the swallows, which mate for life, return to the same nesting spot year after year and probably will not leave until they are prevented from getting to the rafters and the scent associated with nesting sites is washed away with bleach.
In the meantime, the city is getting quotes for netting that could be hung from the shelter's ceiling.
"If it's reasonable [financially] to put netting up, we might do that sooner rather than later," Topitzhofer said.
He said the city has received a few critical e-mails about the attempts to remove the swallows.
"We're not about hating birds," he said. "We're just trying to do the best we can with this."
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380