“True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.”
― William Shakespeare
An occasional swallow–usually a brilliant Violet-green Swallow–seen sweeping the sky above, cheerfully signals that spring is here, yet a nesting Barn Swallow, chirping, squeaking, and squealing upon your entering the barn . . . Screams of summer.
My Barn Swallows are back. Like a bus of sugar fiend teenagers, they push through the barn doors, chase each other, squabble, taunt me, and then chase and chatter some more until they’re back out the door. For the first few years of living here, I reveled in the attention. I was Snow White to a troop of gremlins. Then, be it age or all the guano, I started to revile the specters and all their bickering.
In other ways, seasonal Barn Swallows are like a band of gypsies: they show up, I delight in their company and easy going nature, yet soon they act like they own the place and I grow tired of their ceaseless mirth. So this year, I was determined to put an end to their squatting and I enclosed the cow barn. Wait, no cries of home wrecker. In my defense, and mutual good fortune, I created alternative perches in other barns; the machine shed, hay barn, and horse barn are now adorned with this bird’s mud nest gargoyles and unsightly streaks of white.
Barn swallows build their nests by attaching a mud shelf to wall, or they build on top of a structure, like a beam or rafter, a series of mud layers which they deposit from their mouth. Our farm is prime real estate since we have numerous outbuildings and we live on a tidal influenced river that exposes fresh mud daily. From here, the swallows gather mud in their bills and then carry it to the curved wall of their nest. It looks a little like a rudimentary clay cup that was fashioned from ropes of clay rather spun on a wheel. When the half-moon shaped cups are 3-6 inches tall, the birds line it with hair, feathers, or other fluff and in lay around 3-5 eggs.
In short time these eggs are gaping mouths which the parents, (and I read they sometimes have close relatives help too), feed about every minute. Most of the chicks eventually join their parents in the upper rafter ruckus, yet occasionally, a poor hatchling thinks it can fly too soon, or a crow risks the untrustworthy farmer and absconds into the barn for a snack.
As much as I lead on that the swallow’s are annoying, their presence on the farm is welcome. I assumed they served the purpose of keeping the mosquitos down, yet I read they do not swarm feed with mouths agape. Rather, they seek out larger, individual bugs like flies, beetles, bees, and wasps, which they pluck from the air. This behavior is apparent when I cut hay and the birds circle the tractor, diving, and swerving to catch the disturbed insects. You can watch the frenzy of feeding and filming on the video below. Caution, it’s a little loud with the tractor engine.
*As a post script. I observed a vindication for keeping a dead birch, while trying to photo a Violet-green Swallow. This tree, and others, are dying out from the crown down. Some have questioned my leaving them, yet I believe they serve a greater good as food source for bugs and subsequent woodpeckers, chickadees, etc. rather than a stump. Turns out the small, unnoticeable holes are great homes for Violet-greens. These swallows nest in cavities. They do not create their nest like their Barn brethren. I imagine cavities are hard to come by. Most of the likely crevices are taken by bigger, more dominant, and frankly, in my opinion, uglier birds like the European Starling. Luckily, this swallow couple found a home in the top of this dead trunk.
Unfortunately, it’s quite small, but its rump and tail feathers are protruding from the trunk slightly below center frame. Hard to capture as the bird literally dive bombs into the hole.