Photo of a colony of Bank Swallows flying near their burrows.

Photo: Tianna Burke

Protecting and recovering species at risk in Ontario

Species at risk recovery is a key part of protecting Ontario’s biodiversity. The Endangered Species Act, 2007 (ESA) is the Government of Ontario’s legislative commitment to protecting and recovering species at risk and their habitats.

Under the ESA, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (the Ministry) must ensure that a recovery strategy is prepared for each species that is listed as endangered or threatened. A recovery strategy provides science-based advice to government on what is required to achieve recovery of a species.

Within nine months after a recovery strategy is prepared, the ESA requires the Ministry to publish a statement summarizing the government’s intended actions and priorities in response to the recovery strategy. The response statement is the government’s policy response to the scientific advice provided in the recovery strategy. In addition to the strategy, the government response statement considered (where available) input from stakeholders, other jurisdictions, Indigenous communities and organizations, and members of the public. It reflects the best available local and scientific knowledge, including Traditional Ecological Knowledge, at this time and may be adapted if new information becomes available. In implementing the actions in the response statement, the ESA allows the Ministry to determine what is feasible, taking into account social and economic factors.

The Recovery Strategy for the Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia) in Ontario was completed on June 2, 2016.

The Bank Swallow is a small migratory songbird, measuring approximately 12 cm in length. Bank Swallows have a grey-brown head, contrasting darker brown feathers on their wings and white underparts, which are separated by a well-defined, brown breast-band. The species wings are held at a sharper angle towards its tail than other swallow species and exhibits quicker wing beats than other swallow species.

Protecting and recovering Bank Swallow

The Bank Swallow is listed as a threatened species under the ESA, which protects both the bird and its habitat. The ESA prohibits harm or harassment of the species and damage or destruction of its habitat without authorization. Such authorization would require that conditions established by the Ministry be met.

The Bank Swallow has an extensive global distribution and occurs on every continent with the exception of Australia and Antarctica. It breeds across most of Canada, as well as below the tree line in Alaska, and across the northern two-thirds of the United States. North American breeding populations of Bank Swallows winter across a wide range in South America, Central America, Mexico, and the West Indies. In Ontario, the species breeds throughout the entire province; however, it is most common in southern Ontario and sparsely distributed throughout the Canadian Shield and Hudson Bay Lowland regions in northern Ontario. Large colonies of Bank Swallows occur along the shores of the Saugeen River, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and in some aggregate extraction pits.

Bank Swallows use both natural environments, such as eroding lake bluffs and river banks, as well as human-made locations, such as extraction faces in aggregate pits and topsoil piles in construction areas for breeding. Over half of the provincial population of Bank Swallows is estimated to occur in aggregate pits and quarries. The species also uses a variety of open terrestrial and aquatic habitats as foraging habitat. Additionally, Bank Swallows congregate at communal roosting sites which consist of wetlands and dense vegetation over water.

Based on data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the Bank Swallow has experienced long-term declines with an estimated loss of 95% of its Canadian population from 1970 to 2012. Similar trends have been noted in Ontario with a long-term rate of decline of 93% over the same time period. Survey data for the most recent 10 year period, 2002 to 2012, indicates that Bank Swallows have continued to decline, but the average annual rate of decline has lessened. More recent data collected from annual Bank Swallow burrow count inventories between 2009 and 2014 estimate the Ontario Bank Swallow population to be about 409,000 breeding birds. Provincial estimates on the majority of inland river systems, the Hudson Bay Lowlands and other select areas are not currently available and as a result are not included in this estimate.

Numerous factors have been proposed as possible explanations for the declines in Bank Swallow, but there remain knowledge gaps to critically evaluate threats to the species. The number of Bank Swallows in Ontario and other parts of North America likely initially increased following European settlement with the associated increase in open foraging habitat from forest clearings to create pastureland. The excavation of sand and gravel from pits, quarries and road cuts led to an increase in nesting opportunities in human-made nesting habitat. Efforts to protect human health and safety (e.g., standardize specification for maintaining slopes) in conjunction with infrastructure development may have played a role in decreasing these nesting opportunities in human-made nesting habitat. Loss of nest site habitat in natural habitat has also historically occurred due to flood and erosion control measures, such as those related to dams and shoreline hardening activities. These measures reduce the availability of large eroding nesting banks for Bank Swallows. It is unknown to what extent nesting habitat loss is currently occurring; however, recent recovery efforts have focused on managing nesting habitat in collaboration with the aggregate industry and stewardship partners.

The decline of Bank Swallows has also been attributed to loss or degradation of foraging habitat. Over the past century, open grassland types of agricultural habitat in southern Ontario have decreased substantially due to urbanization, changing agricultural land use, and succession of marginal farmland. While there has been little change in the total amount of open habitat (i.e., agricultural lands, native grassland, savanna, alvar and rock barrens) in southern Ontario since the early 1970s, there continues to be major changes to land cover due to changing agricultural land use, such as the conversion of pasture to row crops, that could be affecting Bank Swallows and other aerial insectivores. Furthermore, changes in the extent and quality of wetlands, riparian areas and open water habitat could be affecting food availability. Throughout southern Ontario, wetlands have undergone significant losses, while additional impacts on the landscape, such as invasive species and drainage activities, continue to exacerbate degradation of wetland health and function.

Although there have been losses in nest site availability and in the amount of foraging habitat, these losses do not appear to account entirely for the severity and timing of the declines in Bank Swallow populations. Environmental contaminants, pesticides and pollutants may directly (e.g., through direct exposure) or indirectly (e.g., through changes or reduction in the food supply) affect Bank Swallows. There has been a reduction in the overall use of pesticides and insecticides by the agricultural sector in Ontario over the past 25 years. However, neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides which has become one of the most widely-used insecticides in the world, could be impacting Bank Swallow and other aerial insectivore populations through effects on insect prey populations. In response to this, and other concerns regarding neonicotinoids, the Government of Ontario established new regulatory requirements to be phased in for the sale and use of neonicotinoid-treated seeds in Ontario.

Potential threats to Bank Swallow also include additional human activities that result in mortality or reduced nesting opportunities (e.g., activities necessary to promote human health and safety), persecution, habitat loss and disturbance at roosting sites, climate change and severe weather. Furthermore, threats are likely affecting the species during migration and on the wintering grounds, including exposure to pesticides and loss of foraging habitat in those areas. Trends in Canada’s migratory bird populations from 1970 to 2010 have shown that bird species that migrate to South America such as the Bank Swallow, have shown the most severe declines, compared to birds migrating to closer locations (i.e., the United States).

It is likely that there are multiple direct and indirect threats that are having a combined impact on Bank Swallows. The significance and severity of these threats are largely unknown. Research is required to understand the causal factors and magnitude of threats causing the decline and in order to be able to focus recovery efforts on actions that will have the most benefit to the species.

Given some uncertainty with respect to known and potential threats to the species and its habitat, it is difficult to estimate the amount of time required to further reduce the current population decline and achieve a stable population. It is acknowledged that further reduction in the current size of the Ontario Bank Swallow population is inevitable until the rate of decline is halted. However, as the species has already begun to show a reduction in the rate of decline, achieving a stable population appears to be a realistic long-term goal. Aiming to maintain a stable, self-sustaining population within 20 years is thought to allow sufficient time to fill knowledge gaps, which in some cases will require extensive multi-year research studies. As knowledge of threats and their severity increases over the next five years, protection and recovery activities will be examined to identify where knowledge gaps remain. In the meantime, implementation of recovery actions over the short-term will help manage the population and slow the rate of decline. The government is therefore establishing targets to slow the average annual rate of population decline from 4.8% to a state with a stable, non-declining population in the next 20 years, through recovery actions identified in the government response statement. Through implementation of a comprehensive suite of protection and recovery actions, establishing a self-sustaining population, at no less than 77% of the present-day breeding population size, by 2037, is considered to be achievable. This target takes into account the rate of decline of the species and the implementation of key recovery actions to address the main threats to the species.

Government’s recovery goal

The government’s short-term goal for the recovery of Bank Swallow is to reduce the rate of population decline by minimizing threats and improving habitat conditions. In the long-term, the government’s goal is to maintain a stable and self-sustaining population of Bank Swallow, throughout the species' range in Ontario by 2037 (within 20 years).


Protecting and recovering species at risk is a shared responsibility. No single agency or organization has the knowledge, authority or financial resources to protect and recover all of Ontario’s species at risk. Successful recovery requires inter-governmental co-operation and the involvement of many individuals, organizations and communities. In developing the government response statement, the Ministry considered what actions are feasible for the government to lead directly and what actions are feasible for the government to support its conservation partners to undertake.

Government-led actions

To help protect and recover the Bank Swallow, the government will directly undertake the following actions:

  • Develop, promote implementation of and adapt, as appropriate, best management practices on techniques to mitigate effects of activities on Bank Swallow, such as information on the creation and maintenance of nesting habitat.
  • Establish and implement a provincial grassland stewardship initiative to create, maintain, and enhance 30,000 ha of grassland habitat by 2036.
  • Work with partners and stakeholders to implement the Pollinator Health Strategy and Action Plan and further reduce overall pesticide use in Ontario through actions such as integrated pest management and education.
  • Educate other agencies and authorities involved in planning and environmental assessment processes on the protection requirements under the ESA.
  • Encourage the submission of Bank Swallow data to the Ministry’s central repository at the Natural Heritage Information Centre.
  • Undertake communications and outreach to increase public awareness of species at risk in Ontario.
  • Protect the Bank Swallow and its habitat through the ESA. Continue to implement, promote compliance with and enforce habitat protections using the species-specific habitat description for Bank Swallow.
  • Support conservation, agency, municipal and industry partners, and Indigenous communities and organizations to undertake activities to protect and recover the Bank Swallow. Support will be provided where appropriate through funding, agreements, permits (including conditions) and/or advisory services.
  • Encourage collaboration, and establish and communicate annual priority actions for government support in order to reduce duplication of efforts.

Government-supported actions

The government endorses the following actions as being necessary for the protection and recovery of the Bank Swallow. Actions identified as "high" will be given priority consideration for funding under the ESA. Where reasonable, the government will also consider the priority assigned to these actions when reviewing and issuing authorizations under the ESA. Other organizations are encouraged to consider these priorities when developing projects or mitigation plans related to species at risk. The government will focus its support on these high-priority actions over the next five years.

Focus area: Research

Objective: Enhance knowledge on causes of population decline, severity of threats and habitat characteristics for Bank Swallow.

Widespread declines in aerial insectivore populations have raised concerns as to whether there have been large-scale changes in insect populations due to insecticides, environmental contaminants, habitat degradation, climate change or other factors. Many knowledge gaps must be addressed in order to understand the most significant threats to the species' survival and inform recovery planning. Understanding prey availability, habitat characteristics and differences between natural habitat versus human-made habitat will help to identify where management actions should be focused. Additionally, a greater understanding of the species' habitat preferences (e.g., characteristics of foraging habitat) will provide valuable information to support future recovery actions.


  1. (High) Encourage coordinated research into the link between insect availability, foraging habitat and population declines in Bank Swallow and other aerial insectivores breeding in Ontario, which may include evaluating:
    • Bank Swallow diet and factors (e.g., landscape, habitat, land use) affecting seasonal food availability (quantity and quality);
    • the extent that environmental contaminants (e.g., pesticides) are directly or indirectly affecting productivity and/or survival rates; and,
    • possible direct and indirect links between climate change and/or severe weather events and changes related to timing of insect availability and Bank Swallow populations.
  2. Identify the threats affecting Bank Swallow nesting habitat and evaluate the significance of the potential threats such as:
    • examining factors influencing habitat suitability and availability of nesting habitat for Bank Swallows (e.g., severe weather events); and,
    • investigating differences in colony size and reproductive success in natural habitat versus human-made habitat and examining potential causes.
  3. Investigate the key characteristics of foraging and roosting habitat used by Bank Swallows in Ontario to inform habitat, management and future recovery actions. This may include:
    • examining the relationship between foraging habitat distance from nest sites and quality of foraging habitat used by Bank Swallows; and,
    • identifying roosting locations, investigate roosting patterns and stopover behaviour of Bank Swallows.
  4. Coordinate efforts to share information with other jurisdictions, including the federal government, to understand the relative degree to which Bank Swallow is affected by threats that occur within Ontario (e.g., on nesting or foraging habitat) versus threats that occur outside the breeding season (e.g., on wintering grounds).

Focus area: Habitat management and stewardship

Objective: Work collaboratively with land owners and managers to maintain or improve the amount and quality of Bank Swallow habitat available.

A large number of Bank Swallows depend on habitat created incidentally by industry sectors, and as a result, those sectors have an important role to play in the protection and recovery of the species. By implementing best management practices to minimize effects on the species and prevent habitat loss in both human-made and natural nesting environments, nesting productivity may in turn be enhanced. Management practices will also help minimize threats associated with reduced insect availability. Threats to Bank Swallow foraging habitat may need to be further quantified in order to develop effective best management practices for the species. Taking a collaborative approach to developing, promoting and evaluating practical actions that individuals and industry can undertake is critical to addressing common management issues and will help support the protection and recovery of Bank Swallows. Promoting beneficial stewardship actions that individuals can take proactively to enhance habitat and fill knowledge gaps is also encouraged.


  1. (High) Develop, promote, implement and evaluate the effectiveness of best management practices and techniques to mitigate effects of activities on Bank Swallow nesting habitat.
  2. Develop and promote best management practices to minimize threats to Bank Swallow foraging habitat, such as:
    • maintaining and enhancing hedgerows, riparian buffers and wetlands to encourage insect diversity and abundance;
    • promoting integrated pest management; and,
    • further reducing overall pesticide and insecticide use.
  1. Encourage collaborative stewardship for Bank Swallow, such as:
    • assessing options and where feasible and appropriate, promoting Bank Swallow designs for nesting structures for both short-term (e.g., temporary sand piles) and long-term (e.g., concrete nesting wall) nesting habitat. Monitor effectiveness and adapt structures as appropriate; and,
    • recognizing stewardship actions for nesting or foraging habitat on the landscape, which may be in coordination with other grassland initiatives where applicable (e.g., through recognition programs).

Focus area: Monitoring

Objective: Enhance knowledge of Bank Swallow population trends, demographics and habitat use.

Ongoing monitoring is required to track the progress and effectiveness of recovery actions. Using consistent methods will support a greater understanding of the population level, the rate of decline, and changes in habitat availability and requirements. Conducting surveys and monitoring to increase our knowledge of the current Bank Swallow population in Ontario is important to accurately measure population changes, especially within areas that have not been thoroughly surveyed.


  1. (High) Monitor Bank Swallow population trends in Ontario to track short-term and long-term changes. This may include:
    • implementing burrow count inventories at regular intervals across the species distribution in both natural and human-made environments using established monitoring methods;
    • encouraging the documentation of Bank Swallow colonies and roost sites, reporting on the species' abundance and distribution through established provincial and national citizen science initiatives;
    • monitoring reproductive success and estimating adult and juvenile survival rates to inform population estimate models and identify changes in the species' abundance; and,
    • monitoring habitat occupancy at nest sites to document changes in habitat use and distribution throughout the species' provincial range.
  1. Conduct standardized surveys in areas that contain suitable habitat (e.g., Hudson Bay Lowlands, bluffs along northern Great Lakes) to further refine Ontario’s population estimates.

Implementing actions

Financial support for the implementation of actions may be available through the Species at Risk Stewardship Program. Conservation partners are encouraged to discuss project proposals related to the actions in this response statement with the Ministry. The Ministry can also advise if any authorizations under the ESA or other legislation may be required to undertake the project.

Implementation of the actions may be subject to changing priorities across the multitude of species at risk, available resources and the capacity of partners to undertake recovery activities. Where appropriate, the implementation of actions for multiple species will be co-ordinated across government response statements.

Reviewing progress

The ESA requires the Ministry to conduct a review of progress towards protecting and recovering a species not later than five years from the publication of this response statement. The review will help identify if adjustments are needed to achieve the protection and recovery of the Bank Swallow.


We would like to thank all those who participated in the development of the Recovery Strategy for the Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia) in Ontario for their dedication to protecting and recovering species at risk.

For additional information:

The government response statement for Bank Swallow is available in PDF format upon request. Please email PDF requests to