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Outdoors/Adventure

Instead of zapping Alaska’s mosquitoes, build a birdhouse

A swallow feeds insects to young ones nesting in the back of a street light in Fairview on Tuesday, July 9, 2013. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Folks in Alaska spend a lot of money on mosquito zappers. There are propane zappers and electric ones. Some opt for mosquito traps, contraptions that entice mosquitoes to lay their eggs in the trap and then kill the larvae. Good luck with this idea. A single female mosquito can lay up to 3,000 eggs with an 80 percent hatch rate.

Advertising literature will tell you that mosquitoes only travel a couple hundred feet from where they hatched. That is true — with some species. However, there are 35 species of mosquito in Alaska. Adults of some mosquito models move as far as 50 miles. The state has fiddled with spraying pesticides and some years back went as far as introducing a light oil sheen on stagnant ponds to keep the larvae from emerging.

All methods work a little bit, but none are effective in every instance. My advice? Forget about electronics, pesticide sprays and mosquito traps. Instead, build birdhouses.

The feathered critters you want to attract are swallows. There are a half-dozen types of swallows that frequent Alaska. The four common ones are tree swallows, violet-green swallows, cliff swallows and bank swallows.

Bank swallows require specialized nesting areas. Most of us can rule that species out for mosquito-control purposes.

Cliff swallows can be attracted in good numbers. The drawback to these guys is the mess they leave. They nest in colonies from a half-dozen to hundreds. The side of your house can turn into a mud-pie. Plus, like all swallows, they carry a lot of mites. Should you have a good colony of mud swallows under the eaves of your house, you will also find a fair number of tiny orange mites in your bathtub.

Our place on the Maclaren River has a substantial colony of cliff swallows under the Maclaren bridge. The vicinity is mosquito-free for about a quarter-mile radius. Should you have the misfortune to live in a city with no overpasses near your house, the best bet is to put up birdhouses.

In the case of swallows, more houses are better. The birds are compatible and will nest together in colonies. Violet-green swallows will nest in fairly tight groups. You can build “apartment’ houses with six to 10 holes — there needs to be separating compartments. A 12-hole house may have six or seven nesting families. Tree swallows like more separation; 20 to 30 feet between single houses seems about right.

Tree swallows and violet-green swallows look similar but can be distinguished from each other by color patterns. Violet-green birds have a white streak through their eye, while tree swallows have a dark cap that comes down below the eye.

One attraction of these two types of swallow is their nesting preference. In forest habitat, they nest in hollow trees with woodpecker holes. City birds will nest in any hole available. They actually prefer unpainted rough wood over shiny, painted accommodations.

The best houses are sections of hollow trees. You can cut a section of hollow tree into 12-inch segments, attach a plywood top and bottom, and voila — a birdhouse.

A couple years ago, we held a birdhouse building clinic for kids at our place. The kids had to use hand tools. The houses didn't necessarily come out perfectly square, but the swallows loved them.

Swallows can be picky nesters. They may like the house and start to build a nest, and a day later they are gone. Don't worry. They almost always return. Sometimes it may take them three weeks to construct a nest.

You’ll find that if you have more than a half-dozen nest boxes, the birds tend to stick around. I think they are worried another pair may take their spot.

Another thing that will hold swallows at the nest site is an abundance of white feathers. Almost all of us have a leaky winter jacket in the closet. Scatter some of those white feathers around the yard and few swallows can resist the temptation.

The best thing about swallows is their ability to eat bugs. Most of their diet is made up of flying insects. A swallow will eat their body weight of flying insects in a single day — that’s 800 or 900 mosquitoes per bird Granted, most birds will opt for larger bugs than mosquitoes if that is an option, but tell me: which of the flying insects that frequent your yard do you love?

You have to admit that an attractive little bird singing on its house is a lot more attractive than an electronic zapper or the aroma of commercial bug spray. In all honesty, though, few of us will be able to attract a large enough swallow colony to our yards to eliminate the bug population. But building birdhouses is much more family-friendly than traipsing to the store to search for the latest, bestest and newest mosquito eliminator.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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