Nesting barn swallows move right in Neighbors: These apartment tenants pay no rent, but they can't be evicted. The birds and their nests are not welcomed by everyone, but they're protected by federal law.

June 03, 1996|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

You can take away the barn, but you can't take away th birds that once nested there.

An apartment complex near Elkridge is learning this lesson. Built on a former farm off Old Waterloo Road about six years ago, Sherwood Crossing apartments become host every spring to some winged tenants: barn swallows looking for a place to nest.

It is apparently of little consequence to the birds that the farm, the barn and dusty high rafters no longer exist. They make do in the modern world by building their mud nests on top of sprinkler systems and lights in the open breezeways on the second and third floors.

For most residents, the birds provide an inside look at nature, right outside their doors. But for others, the birds' rite of spring runs headlong into their rights as tenants. Literally.

"When you walk up the stairs, they fly at you kind of like kamikaze pilots," resident John Beck said.

The birds build their nests by packing mud around the sprinklers and lights, making them look like half a chocolate ice cream cone. The 6-inch dark-blue birds fly in and out of the nests looking for food.

Apartment officials refuse to comment on the birds' nests and will not say how many birds live in the 634-apartment complex. But they recently posted a memo telling residents they expected the birds to stay until next month.

And even if they might want to evict them, the nests are basically on rent control. The barn swallow -- like all other birds except pigeons, starlings and grackles -- is federally protected. Tampering with a nest can bring a fine of $5,000 and six months in jail.

But that's something that rarely happens, conceded Andrea Ward, resident agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Enforcement Office.

"People try to work with us. I haven't really had anyone say, 'Drop dead, lady,' " when told that the birds and their nests must be left alone, she said.

A glowing federal paper about the barn swallow describes the bird as "a gentle, harmless creature that attends strictly to its own affairs and seldom troubles its neighbors."

But judging from the clumps of mud in some breezeways and white stains of bird droppings, the truth might be less flattering.

The apartment complex is offering cleaning services to residents in the few affected areas.

Most residents say the birds, despite the mess, are not a problem.

Judy Nguyen was heartbroken when the nest birds had built on a sprinkler in her hallway suddenly fell. Inside was an egg, which splattered on the ground.

"It was kind of tragic. They had a little nest going," Nguyen said.

As one resident said, commenting on the way into his apartment after work, the birds come with the country: "It's just one of those things you have to put up with, I guess. A little bit of nature."

Pub Date: 6/03/96

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