Barn swallows: buff-breasted beauties
Barn swallows are the most abundant swallows in the world, found all across the northern hemisphere in summer and the southern in winter. Their history with people (and our buildings) goes back at least 2000 years, and now they rarely nest on any structure that isn’t human-made. They were the very first birds to be banded: during the French revolution, some lonely imprisoned rich dude banded a young one and documented its return for three years. I wonder which of them lived longer. Given the short lifespan of barn swallows (four years) and the short lifespan of imprisoned noblemen in 1789, it’s a bit of a toss-up.
Agile and beautiful
Barn swallows make for good birdwatching. They’re one of the only birds I see regularly feeding their young ones on the wing. I mean, when you can fly that precisely, why bother waiting for the wee ones to land? Just teach them to sync up with you at high speed in the air, get the transfer done, and keep hunting. It’s an absolute wonder to watch.
Below is a photo of a bit of a compromise: Junior wants a rest but Dad needs to get on with things. (Not gonna lie, I was pretty chuffed about capturing this moment at the Swan Lake sanctuary in Victoria.)
Little cruise missiles
While they are absolute masters of the skies, one of my favourite behaviours is when they hunt close to the ground. Find yourself a good patch of gravel road in summer, and watch them come down to pursue the insects hovering just above the surface. They bomb down at high speed and patrol the roadway, hugging the contours of the road like a cruise missile, a foot or so above the hard earth. It’s amazing. I’ve never seen them make a mistake, though apparently they can end up in the water when hunting insects there. They swim, in a kind of rough butterfly stroke, using their wings to pull themselves to shore. Resourceful birds.
I have never really pondered getting ink done, as they say, but if I ever got a tattoo it would be a barn swallow on my chest. Now, while I can’t call myself a sailor by any stretch, that emblem is worn by those who have sailed 5000 miles or more, which I can easily say I’ve done (though it was all done on cushy cruise ships.)
Some European folklore has it that your cows will give bloody milk or go dry if anything bad happens to the barn swallows nesting on a farm; lightning may even strike a house if a swallow nest is removed.
Let it be.
I wish we had that kind of lore here. Every year I hear of some pissy homeowner blasting their nests off the vinyl-clad sidings of their suburban homes. Honestly, it wouldn’t kill anyone to share their property for a few weeks. Swallows are wonderful housemates. They don’t sing too loudly, they eat thousands of bugs, and they keep you and your pets busy running for cover when they dive at you for getting too close to their nests. A little extra exercise never hurt anybody, I feel.
Swallows in trouble
I was absolutely floored a few years back when they were named a species at risk. I have always thought of them as abundant; they’ve been part of my life everywhere I have lived or worked. I remember them nesting on the camp kitchens of Saskatchewan when we were kids; I remember them hunting over the foothills of Kananaskis when I worked there in my 20s. I have always assumed they would be with me for life.
But thinking about it now—when I was a kid, as Dad drove us through the prairie countryside to Saskatchewan, our windshield would be absolutely covered with insect splatter. Remember that? Doesn’t happen anymore. Insecticides, new agricultural practices, climate change, and other human-caused forced have conspired against both bugs and birds. Barn swallow numbers dropped radically between 1980 and 2000.
In the last few years their numbers have stabilized here in Canada and that’s wonderful news; they’ve been downgraded from ‘Threatened’ to ‘Of Special Concern.’
That means there’s hope; there’s time.
Make a little room in your life for barn swallows. If they choose to grace you with a nest nearby, care for it. Wet a little mud for them to help with nest maintenance; they can make thousands of trips to just get their nest back in shape in spring. Watch their morning matings and their evening hunts. Imagine yourself, a near-weightless little missile with that perfectly-forked tail and the wings of a miniature falcon, pursuing your prey at dizzying speed as the wind whistles through your wings.
Let me brighten your Friday.
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