This article came to me courtesy of Robyn Graboski, our local wildlife rehabber. Go swallows!
"Hi-tech Barn Swallows"
A couple of Minnesota Barn Swallows have raised the bar on the scale of "Swallow IQ." For the past four years, a pair of Barn Swallows has nested inside the lumberyard entryway at the Home Depot store in Maplewood, Minnesota. At least one pair has learned that if they fly a tight circle in front of the motion detector above the double doors at the entry to the Home Depot, the doors open. Each bird then flies one more loop as the doors open and swoops inside where the pair has built a nest atop a small pipe near the ceiling. When a bird is ready to leave, it flies a tight circle in front of the motion detector inside the doorway and the doors again open for Home Depot's small avian customers.
The press report:
Keith Stomberg, a supervisor at the store, first noticed the birds nesting inside in the summer of 2001. He was fascinated by their apparent learned behavior and left them alone to raise their families. It was a good place for the swallows to raise their young because there were no predators or bad weather. The pair typically raised two broods each year. When the birds returned to nest in 2003, he contacted the staff of the Non game Wildlife Program of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Wildlife biologist Joan Galli observed the nesting swallows and was amazed to see how the birds had adapted to the unique setting in order to raise their families. "We typically think of the crow family and the parrot family as among the most intelligent of birds, " according to Galli, "but apparently the swallows have a few tricks of their own that help us appreciate how birds are constantly adapting to survive in novel human-created environments.
"Birds Opening the Coop" -- Kermit Pattison in The St. Paul Pioneer Press, 6/26/04:
Some barn swallows apparently have figured out how to operate motion detector doors at the Home Depot store in Maplewood in order to nest indoors safe from weather and predators.
Wildlife biologists from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are observing the birds as an unusual example of learned behavior and adaptation to the human environment.
"I thought this is so unusual that it needs to be recorded and put in the book of knowledge on barn swallows," said Keith Stomberg, the Home Depot employee who first noticed the phenomenon. "This takes deductive reasoning. The term 'bird brain' now has got to be modified."
Steve Kittelson, a DNR wildlife specialist, said it remains unclear to what degree the swallows have "learned" to trigger the motion sensors. Obviously, the birds have figured out that if they circle outside, much as they would instinctively do in front of a closed barn door, they will eventually get through. The question is whether they realize that their own presence actually triggers the door to open.
"It's very interesting and amazing to watch that they can make this work to their advantage," Kittelson said. "It certainly gives them a secure site for nesting. They've eliminated a lot of predators and weather elements. They even have air conditioning."
This year marks the fourth spring the swallows have taken up residence inside the giant home improvement retailer at 2360 White Bear Ave. Now there are at least a dozen nests inside various entrances, said store manager Gregg Barker.
"They'll operate all the doors," said Barker. "All of them do. To get inside, they'll flutter right underneath these sensors until it opens."
The cavernous store has become an attraction for birdwatchers.
"One lady, she stops in once a week just to check them out," said Barker. "I had a couple of groups of bird watchers who come and set up videos to tape them."
Stomberg said he first noticed the unusual behavior about three years ago while working at the contractor's desk near a set of automatic doors.
He said the swallows would flutter by the motion detectors until the door opened and even would do so as a courtesy for birds on the other side who wanted to get through.
"One of the assistant managers locked the door early," Stomberg recalled. "The barn swallows weren't done yet. They actually picked him and harassed him until he unlocked the door like, 'Hey! Unlock the door dummy, I'm not done feeding my kids!'"
Stomberg said he called the Department of Natural Resources last year. The DNR officials who came to investigate last spring initially were skeptical, he said, but then "picked their jaws up off the floor" as they watched the birds.