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In Praise of Barn Swallows

This is a personal reminiscence. If you want a good general-purpose description, here's a link to the barn swallow page at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

See what the experts say about the care and feeding of baby birds who fall out of the nest. (Warning - this one is grim).

Trudy Pischer of Willard, Missouri sent me her essay, The Spring House Swallows.

Donna H. of South Dakota sent me her essay, The Talking Barn Swallow.

Read two success stories about raising barn swallows that fell out of their nest.

Alex P. sent me her essay, A Bittersweet Barn Swallow Story. It is better to have tried and failed than to have never cared enough to try.

Here's my essay, finally:

The barn swallow is a slender, elegant bird. Its back, wings and tail are midnight blue, its breast and belly russet. The face is russet too, save for a black mask across the eyes; the male reminds me of a raffish bandit, wearing a sporty vest under his black tie and tails.

We have had a family of swallows return to our front porch for seven years now. The first year we watched with quiet wonder as they built their nest; when they came back the second year we were delighted, and now their return is just another miracle of Spring, like the daffodils. A nest shell will last two or three years before it crumbles. When it does the birds build a new one, one tiny daub of mud at a time, using straw and an occasional horsehair to hold it together. The shell is as big as a grapefruit and holds a warm inner nest. In our house the inner nest is made from stray feathers and dog hair. Our dogs start to shed their winter coats about the same time the swallows appear, so we brush them vigorously and put the hair out where the swallows can recycle it.

The swallows always put their nest on the back side of the 4x12 header beam. They couldn't have picked a better place to build. The beam protects them from the wind, the height from stray cats, our roof from the rain and the stored heat of the day - we have a thick concrete porch - from the night's chill. Their nest is invisible from the street, which keeps them safe from small boys with rocks and pellet rifles.

Our swallows arrive every year about Easter, give or take a fortnight, spend a while cleaning up the nest, then settle down to raise young swallows. After three weeks we can see the youngsters peeping over the edge of the nest, waiting for their parents to come back from their forays with a beakfull of bugs to eat. In three more weeks it's time for flight lessons, from the edge of the nest to the porch light and back again, and then the teenagers move out to live on the telephone wires while the parents raise a second brood in the nest.

About the first week in September they head south. Roger Tory Peterson tells me barn swallows range from Alaska and northern Canada through most of the western United States in Summer, from southern Mexico to Argentina in winter. While their seasonal range is known, no one knows the exact migration pattern; the Argentine swallows may make epic flights to Alaska every year, or they may just lolly-gag up to Arizona and let someone else go to Alaska. We like to think there is a family somewhere in Argentina who wait for "their" swallows to show up every November.

While the birds are in residence we take care not to slam the front door and try to walk past the nest quietly. Still, they twitter in alarm and fly away in great swooping arcs as soon as we open the front door, if the weather is good. This proves they are wild birds, not half-tame overstuffed park pigeons. If it is dark, cold or raining they just hunker down in their nest and pretend we can't see them, which proves they aren't stupid, either.

They have a nice sense of the conventions. Last spring I went out to take some pictures of the youngsters, who had fledged but hadn't started flying. The best portraits are taken at eye level, so I stood on a kitchen chair in the corner farthest from the nest. The parents took off and the rest of the family ducked out of sight, both with cries of alarm. They weren't really frightened; they just knew that wild birds have to be photographed from a blind.

Hoping their sense of propriety was stronger than their knowledge of camouflage, I found a tall, narrow cardboard box, cut a hole in one side, and tried again. The box stopped at my waist and the hole was a good six inches square. To anyone brighter than the bulb we leave on all night in the bathroom I looked like a man with a 35 millimeter camera and a box on his head. It was a bird blind however, and the swallows let me stand on my chair and take pictures, knowing we were both following the conventions.

That was our year of the problem child. Each spring we become accustomed to the "someone is on our porch" alarm calls. About a week after the portrait session I heard true alarm cries when the youngest bird tried to fly a bit too early. He had managed to flutter out of the nest to the ground, but couldn't do the return leg. I noticed a distinct difference in the "too-kweet, too-kweet" calls. The difference was in intensity, not phrasing, like the difference between our dogs' "someone is walking past the house" bark and their "the horses have broken the fence again" bark. When I went out to look Junior scuttled into the shrubbery. I, mindful of getting my scent on his body, scooped him up with a pair of 4x6 index cards and put him back into the nest.

I used the cards the next three times he fell out of the nest, then decided if his parents could fly within three feet of my head while I dumped him back into the nest, they wouldn't be surprised if he smelled like me, so I used my bare hands. Over the next week Junior kept trying to fly and I kept listening for the alarm call, putting him back when needed. I noticed he got farther from the nest as time went on.

One Saturday morning when I was in the kitchen, watching through the window, he took off from the nest, determined to test his wings. They worked just fine for gliding, but he couldn't turn and he couldn't flap. As I watched he glided, straight as an arrow, for the pickup truck parked in the front of the yard, dropping about a foot for every twelve feet of forward motion. He hit the passenger side door head first. I went out yet again and put him back into the nest. Some human children are like that; bound and determined to do things they aren't quite ready for. Their parents can usually see the truck parked in the glide path, so to speak. Sometimes the parents can't get out the front door in time to stop them from hitting the truck, and sometimes they see it coming but figure it won't kill the kid and it might teach him a lesson, so they let him crash into it. Our (avian) problem child finally graduated to adult birdhood as a competent flyer. I'm still having trouble convincing our human problem child that she might want to wait a bit before she leaps out of the nest.

The birds are remarkably clean; one square of cardboard, changed weekly, catches most of the mess, and a short session with the hose once a month does the rest. In this respect, since they feed and water themselves, they are easier to keep than hamsters, and more fun. Besides, as I tell visitors, each little black and white squiggle used to be 50 mosquitoes.

The birds' advantages far outweigh their disadvantages, especially for a family with young children. We have used them to encourage our youngest to eat her dinner, for instance. The first two years we pointed out what daddy bird was doing (stuffing half-chewed bugs into little gaping beaks) and played our own version of "Daddy Bird and Baby bird". The next year we played without the example, since they had grown out of that stage. Saying goodnight to Mr. Bird and Mrs. Bird is a regular part of our going-to-bed ritual. We've used them as springboards for discussion on topics as diverse as trust and responsibility, migration, the difference between seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres, survival strategies in nature, and the roles of parents and children. Even my wife, who majored in zoology at Michigan, has learned things from our swallows. She didn't know barn swallows had names until our youngest asked about it. Last year we had Daniel and Donna; this year we're hosting Elmo and Esmerelda, oddly enough.

The parents and their teen-agers are swooping through the dusk outside the window as I finish writing this, catching their dinner. Our power goes out whenever we have a good storm, we're lucky to get a dial tone ten times in a row, and our children don't have sidewalks, but there are times when it is good to live in the country.

[Written July 1998]

(Historical note - we moved from the barn swallow house in 1992. I still miss them.)

[This is one of my Miscellaneous Essays. There are more; you may enjoy another section of my web site, too:]

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This page updated: June 21, 2014