By Will Kitching

Carol Relitz, a retired marketing and advertising executive, was painfully attacked every day in 2018 when she attempted to enjoy the summer on the deck built by her husband Bob Relitz on Birdcherry Lane in Laurel.

The enemy? The annoying female mosquito  (only the female mosquito bites).

“Living right here near a pond and going out on our beautiful deck at dusk was near impossible!. Bob was one of those lucky people who might get one bite, but I was covered with mosquito bites all the time,” Carol said.

If you are attacked from the air, it’s logical to fight back from the air, especially if you are an Air Force veteran like Bob, who enlisted tree swallows to fight the enemy.

Their neighbor, Ken Cohen, was instrumental in producing the tree swallow solution. Cohen is  a lifetime bird enthusiast and president of the Prince George’s County Audubon Society.

“We got to talking about the mosquito problem with Ken,” Carol said. “He told us that tree swallows are the best thing ever to solve our mosquito problem. He was a key person in establishing the location of each birdhouse.”

Tree swallows feed their brood (four to seven nestlings) with about 6,000 insects/per day – a real dent in the mosquito populations that pester humans. Bob installed two birdhouses a short distance from their home to protect Carol.

After successfully battling mosquitoes on their property, the couple took their idea to the city.

“Carol reached out to me as the former director of parks and recreation with an idea to help reduce the mosquito population in some of our parks. It sounded like a great project that the department was excited to implement,” said Joanne Hall Barr, Laurel’s deputy city administrator, in an email. 

A swallow house.
Courtesy of Bob Relitz

Working in conjunction with the Laurel Parks and Recreation department, Carol and Bob initiated a project to install tree swallow birdhouses at both the city’s Granville Gude and Riverfront parks. Sponsors lined up to support the project, with local artists designing and painting the birdhouses. The project not only provided tree swallows a safe but are also pieces of art for people to enjoy.

“Once I saw the tree swallow houses, I thought it would be a fun decorating opportunity for our preschool students and Recreation Departmental staff to take on,” Hall Baar said. “Carol took the idea further and enlisted other residents and business owners to adopt more houses and decorate them with personal or business-related themes. At the same time, the newly established Laurel Arts Council helped to promote the program as functional pieces of public art.”

After almost four years of sun, rain and snow, the birdhouses were in need of repair this year. Bob is currently upgrading the baffles with new vinyl wraps to improve their longevity. The baffles identify the sponsors and provide information about mosquito control, conversation and tree swallows.

Carol and Bob have been busy coordinating among sponsors, local schools, artists and the Parks and Recreation department to get all 19 birdhouses in place by next spring.

swallow house 1
Carol Relitz with a poster of the completed swallow houses.
Courtesy of Bob Relitz

A “Birdhouse Walk,” with maps and a key identifying the names and locations of the birdhouses, was coordinated by Carol, Bob and the Laurel Parks and Recreation Department. On Oct. 26, the project was celebrated at Granville Gude Park with a number of avid supporters and sponsors attending. 

“Thanks to Carol’s foresight, the program really took on a life of its own. The value of this one small idea grew into a collaborative initiative that promotes community engagement, enhancement of the parks through public art, and is an environmentally sensitive solution to mosquito reduction while providing additional aviary habitat,” Hall Barr wrote. “It is a win/win for everyone!”

Bill Bailey, Laurel’s director of Parks and Recreation, also gave kudos to the Relitzs for their contribution to the Laurel community. 

swallow house 3
( from left) Joyce Covington, (emcee), Bill Bailey, director of Laurel’s Parks and Recreation, Carol Relitz, Bob Relitz and Melissa Holland (past president of Laurel Arts Council) at the birdhouse walk on Oct. 26 at Granville Gude Park.
Courtesy of Ken Cohen

“With Carol’s enthusiasm and Bob’s handy-man ability,  they have been able to expand the birdhouses from Riverfront Park to Laurel Lakes. They have gotten the community involved by participating, painting and sponsoring their birdhouses,” Baiely wrote in an email. “This program was a win-win for Laurel and the community. People come out to bird watch, look at the pieces of art, learn about new businesses and to learn about the program itself. They have created a walking tour of the houses outlining where each piece of art is located. Carol and Bob are enthusiastic about their project and have the full support of the city.”   

Stop by and visit these creative homes of our unpaid volunteer Air Force, the tree swallows.