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Barn Swallow Wisdom



Everything has meaning. So what did I learn from the barn swallows?

The story of the barn swallows began on May 31 when I discovered a little line of mud daubs in the alcove of my front door. Clearly they were planning to build a nest. This would not do, so I cleaned it off. Later that day I returned to find the little couple sitting on the light fixture opposite contemplating the devastation. I relented, and so the story began.

Day after day the couple flew in and out gradually building a very handsome nest. Where they were getting the mud was a mystery. We had had a heavy rain six days earlier, and there must have been standing water somewhere out of sight. I have since learned that it takes about 1,000 trips to construct one nest.

Finally the nest was done and the couple began to take turns sitting on it. She supposedly chose him because of the length of his tail feathers, exceptionally long streamers a sign of genetic strength. Apparently the swallows mate for life, which can be as long as 11 years but probably more like four.

Even though they mate for life, they may copulate outside the nest, so to speak. Wikipedia describes the birds as genetically polygamous but socially monogamous. Interesting phrase. So is this sex just for fun, fertilization somehow forestalled? I ask that because breeding clearly requires a committed pair. Maybe a male with short streamers is a fallback after a female’s moment of ambitious polygamy. Wikipedia is silent on this matter.

My couple did choose a very good location, because their nest was sheltered from the high winds of spring and also probably from birds of prey who would have pillaged. I rerouted guests to other entrances and used those myself. Just waiting, I periodically cleaned up the droppings that began to collect.

Barn Swallows

Barn Swallows

Then the day came when I realized that five little birds had hatched. Now things got really busy. The parents seemed to be zooming in and out all day long with insects they were catching on the fly. At first the baby birds were silent, but as they grew, things began to get noisier. Their little mouths gaped and  they cheeped loudly as a parent flew in. “Me! Me! Me! Me! Feed me!”

Things were getting messier too. Maybe the parents were dropping off more than insects. Maybe the babies were hanging over the edge to do their business, but the welcoming nature of my entrance was deteriorating, and I was having to scrub and rescrub the pavement in quiet moments.

As fledging time approached, I wondered what that must feel like, the critical fly-or-die moment. The little bird emerges from the safety of the nest and launches, and then hopefully everything works. One imagines joy–the discovery of flight and freedom and adventure. The fifth little bird fledged on July 22. The whole process had taken a total of about seven weeks.

The swallows seemed to function as a family for a while, the young birds gathering in the shade under trees, the parents flying in and out still to feed one and then another. I gained great respect for these dedicated parents. They really did a great job.

The family returned the first night, which I found touching, and then again the next evening to escape a storm. The next day I had company coming, however, and I figured it was time to declare the study over. I took the nest down, very tidy inside with only little feathers lining it, and scrubbed down the walls and floor.

As I worked, however, the family became agitated and flew in, whirling around and protesting noisily. Their home had been most satisfactory, and the custom of barn swallows is to breed twice in a season and to return to the same nest year after year.  No wonder they were distressed. I felt a little sad.

But I was also determined. Enough is enough. When the birds continued to visit, I finally put a colorful and scary little Mexican lizard on top of the light fixture. The figure had been given to me by the late friend who was a shamanic practitioner, and she had identified the lizard as my power animal. On one foray, the birds knocked lizard off his perch and broke his tail. Of course it will grow back.

So all in all, I was pleased to be chosen as the base for a fine home, and I learned a lot. I think the most important thing I am left with is thoughts about home. For a variety of reasons, I have moved many times since I graduated from college–24 altogether–and I’ve never lived any one place longer than four years. I’m in my fourth year at my current home, which I really love, but I’m beginning to feel that characteristic restlessness. Maybe the swallows, who would love to have stayed here forever, should be my teachers. We’ll see.

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