ON THE WILD SIDE for June, 2016 by Christine Schoene Maccabee
The Swallows Are Back !
“Birds, the free tenants of land, air, and ocean,
their forms all symmetry, their motions grace…”
James Montgomery, British Poet
I often wonder how many other people feel a thrill when the swallows return to our area in early May. In late April this year I began to watch for them with high expectation. Every year the swallows are drawn back to my home like a magnet, much to my amazement and joy. Their nest of mud and grasses, lined with soft feathers, is perched in a corner of the eaves of my A-frame house. Due to the strength of this nest, and how well it is “glued” to the wood, it has lasted through many a fierce storm. It is the second nest the swallows created there in more than 20 years, the first one falling down just a few years ago. That particular spring, upon their return, they built another strong nest in the very same place, and I expect it to last just as long as the other one.
The first sign of the return of my feathered tenants is their excited chirping, and my day is immediately happier upon hearing them. They sound like they are having a lively conversation, which I guess they are, and my loneliness is displaced by their cheerful company. Since arriving here several days ago, the mated pair has been zooming all day through the skies eating whatever they can find. Every spring and summer they keep my atmosphere completely free of mosquitoes, so no Zika Virus here ! However, due to all the rain and cool weather this spring, the flying bug population is not so great yet. Hopefully the birds had plenty of food while traveling north after wintering somewhere in Mexico or some country in South America. Some swallows winter as far away as Argentina !
I wish I knew my swallows’ entire story, but at least I do know part of their story here in northern Frederick county. I have seen mothers, and fathers, sitting on their nest until the babies hatch. Thereafter the wonderful partnership of the parents continues, taking turns feeding the nestlings, and themselves. It takes a lot of energy zooming around all day. It is a true joy to watch them fly far out over the fields, gathering what they can at lightening speed, and then bringing the food back to their eager nestlings. Usually there are four young ones, and once these fledgelings leave the nest the mother and father occasionally settle down to raising 4 more.
Birds, as we all know, are amazing creatures. We humans are fascinated with both their flight, and their songs, not to forget their amazingly artistic colorations. Many a poet has written eloquently about them and artists such as Audubon have painted detailed representations of them (more than 1,000 to be nearly exact!). Songs like “The Little Red Lark”, an Irish ballad, portray their amazing flights and songs, and airplanes were invented as we grounded humans decided we too had to fly. This idea may or may not have been a good one. After all, birds are following their natural inclinations, whereas humans do not, and we are definitely polluting our planet with all our unnatural contraptions, are we not ?
So, perhaps that is why I am so mesmerized by birds, particularly the swallows. They are so small, seemingly so vulnerable, and yet they can fly such long distances with the greatest of ease. In fact, once here, it is estimated they can fly the equivalent of 600 miles a day in quest of food for their young, according to the Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds. So how is that possible ? you ask.
In my research I have learned, as many of you likely already know, that birds are very light (as light as a feather in fact) due to the fact that their bones are hollow and filled with air. Also, according to a book on Natural History by Bertha Parker, connected with a bird’s lungs are tiny air sacs scattered throughout its body. These air sacs act like tiny hot-air balloons ! Therefore a typical swallow weighs far less than a mouse, lizard or frog of the same size. A birds streamlined body is another help in flying. Humans have tried to mimic these qualities, the closest coming to gliders of various types, and hot-air balloons. I will not say anything about all the other larger, costly, heavy planes, especially of war, which have completely digressed from Nature’s perfect plan.
So, back to feathers. Feathers also serve the purpose of protecting birds from rain and cold. They shed rain because they are a little oily and the intricate parts of the feathers are cleverly put together in lovely, serviceable patterns. Feathers also keep the birds body warm, trapping the heat ; think of your down sleeping bag. This winter I remember telling my chickens to huddle close and keep warm, as I closed them up for the night in their unheated coup. I even worried a bit, but they weathered the cold winter beautifully as they are fully and thickly feathered.
I am in total admiration of birds in general, and sometimes I wish I were as free as they are, unfettered by coats and boots and layers of clothing, and independent of automobile expenses. I envy them for their ability to fly and feed themselves without growing their own food or going into a grocery store.
However, as Popeye so wisely said, “I yam what I yam, and tha’s all what I yam”, and there is no escaping that fact ! I do rather like having two strong legs, and arms I can reach to the sky with, giving praise for all the wonders of life. I am also thrilled to have my swallows back here for another season. I will miss them when they gather to go south in August, and I can usually tell when the time is coming by all their excitement as they zoom around my house with their happy, chirping fledgelings, full grown by then, and fully independent. Sigh.
I wish I could fly free as a bird, and be light as a feather !
Christine is a Master Wildlife Habitat Naturalist and can be reached at email@example.com with any questions or stories of your own.