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Volunteer project at Caverns provides information on cave swallows print By STELLA DAVIS | Associated PressAugust 5, 2006CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) - Nobody knows for certain how many cave swallows share the home of the Mexican free-tail bats at Carlsbad Caverns, but for the past 26 years, volunteers have come back year after year to learn more about them.Since 1980, Steve West, a science teacher at Carlsbad High School and an avid birder and researcher, has been part of a cave swallow banding project that he helped initiate to determine their migratory range and lifespan.Also a member of the Chihuahuan Desert Conservation Alliance, West said members of his organization and volunteers from 38 states and 15 countries have over the years banded an estimated 17,000 cave swallows starting each spring and ending in the fall when the birds leave the cave for the winter and head to Mexico."We needed to know their winter range and where they spend half a year when they are not living in the entrance to the caverns," West said. "But we have collected a lot of other data about them in the past 26 years."West said the cave swallows were discovered inside the cavern's big entrance 40 years ago."There were three nesting pairs found there in 1966. There was a population explosion in the 1970s, but by the early 1980s, the population had maxed out," he said.Although the banding project has been ongoing since 1980, West said determining the number of cave swallows is difficult at best. He estimates about 1,600 swallows make their home at Carlsbad Caverns during the summer months.West said banding the birds is not an easy task. They have to be captured in a net, then an aluminum band with data relating to the capture is placed around the leg."Although we have not had many birds returned documenting where they were found, we have had a few that had died and were returned to us because of the bands. When that happens, it gives us good data of their range and when they were banded by us."The oldest bird to be recaptured in the cave was 12 years old; its band showed it was first captured in 1993. West said about two-thirds of the birds die in the first year, and those who make it can live about eight years.West's group gets federal and state approval for its work and permission from park officials to be in the cave. He said the data gathered is shared with the park, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others who are conducting cave swallow research."My philosophy is that what good is the scientific data if it is not shared?" he said.West became interested in cave swallows shortly after he left the military in the 1970s. His experience banding cave swallows began in Alpine, Texas, with the Texas Bird Banding Association.West moved to Carlsbad in 1980 and it was only logical that he continue banding cave swallows. With park permission, he and a band of volunteers began the project.Banding generally takes place in the evenings after visitors have left and before the bats leave for a night of feeding."The bats and the cave swallows co-exist. The birds fly out in the morning when the bats come in after being out all night," he said.Through his research, West has determined the cave swallows winter as far south as El Salvador and in Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco, Mexico.Over the years, West also has seen a shift in the migratory pattern of the cave swallows summering at Carlsbad Caverns. The birds used to return in early March, but now they're showing up in January.West said the birds are expending less energy by living in the cave, where they are protected. He also said global warming may play a role in the birds' schedule. Want to use this article? Click here for options!Copyright 2006 Santa Fe New Mexican
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