LONDON, ONT. -- Conservationists are sounding the alarm over a colony of threatened bank swallows that nest in the Byron gravel pit.

As many as 2,000 of the protected species were discovered on the west London property this month. Western Universidy migratory bird researcher Brendon Samuels said it’s one of the largest colonies in the province for a species that has declined by 93 per cent in Ontario, and 98 per cent in Canada in the last 50 years.

“We are losing them at a rate that is unprecedented in history. We have less birds alive today because of what humans are doing to the natural world than at any point in human history.”

Samuels is part of a campaign to save the bank swallow colony in the Forest City. He said he and a number of other biologists discovered the colony this month, and he believes it has been here for several years. The little birds are know for burrowing out nesting holes in the sides of banks, both natural and man-made.

The problem is, the Byron gravel pit is slated for imminent development of housing and greenspace. He said losing birds so important to the ecosystem should be a concern for the community, particularly given concerns over invasive insects in the Byron area.

“If we start to lose our birds that eat insects- that’s going to pose a big challenge for us in terms of pest control. A single swallow eats many hundreds of insects every day, but if you ramp that up to two thousand birds flying around Byron, and those birds aren’t welcome to come back here, you can imagine insect numbers are going to go up.”

A petition has been launched calling on the city and developer to stop work in the cliff area where the swallows are nesting, and preserve the portion of the site used by the colony so they may return to breed in future years.

“What I really would like to do is invite them to the table with the city, bring in some expertise, and talk about how do we mitigate this,” said Samels. “How can we continue to allow you to develop on your land, but preserve this habitat for this really critical species at risk.”

Samuels added that the greater conservation community is alarmed. 

“These are not just our birds, they don’t belong to London. These are migratory birds that go down to Mexico for part of the year. So I think people everywhere who care about these birds are concerned about what we’re doing here.”

The petition can be found here.