Member Rara Avis
A month ago yesterday, I posted a picture in Sharon's Wildlife thread of two birds who had built their nest on the handle of my raised garage door. At the time, I thought they might be swallows, and have since identified them more accurately as barn swallows (Hirundo rustica).
The barn swallow is resident on all continents except Australia and is easily distinguished from other swallows by it's deeply forked tail and rust colored breast. This bird's aerial maneuvering is breathtaking. They can effortlessly make sharp turns while flying at high speed, enabling them to catch flies and other insects on the wing and in great numbers. My pair of barn swallows, Martin and Martha, seem to pretty much eat anything that flies and is smaller than they are. When not on or near the nest, they perch on a bright orange extension cord draped across the rafters, and I watched in fascination one day as Martha darted her head in one quick swoop to capture a huge horse fly that had wandered too close. He never knew what hit him, though I could hear the loud crunch from ten feet away.
Mostly, though, they circle my front yard, often at heights ranging from a few feet above the ground to maybe twelve feet, feeding on critters I can't even see. One of my biggest complaints about living in the country has always been bugs, especially wasps (which are endemic around here) and mosquitoes (which often seem to be as large as the wasps). It's hard to believe two birds could make enough of a difference to notice, but the flying bug population around here is demonstrably smaller this summer.
Of course, it's not really just two birds. A nest, naturally, hints at eggs, which quickly become hatchlings. I didn't know it at the time I took the picture in Sharon's thread, but there were three eggs in the nest. One of the hatchlings didn't make it past its third day, and I found it on the garage floor, the victim of falling or being pushed from the nest. It was no bigger than your thumb, with translucent skin and no evidence yet of solid bones. That still left two mouths to feed, however, and Martin and Martha are typically in the air from before dawn to after dusk, each taking turns feeding their young. Barn swallows feed their hatchlings insects compressed into a pellet, which is transported to the nest in the parent's throat. Up to 400 feedings a day may be administered to the hatchlings, which equates to nearly 8,000 insects. It's little wonder the bug population is down this year.
In the past two weeks, those two little thumb-sized critters have grown enough to completely overflow the nest. They try to hunker down, but there always seems to be a butt or a head sticking above the rim of the nest. And when momma or poppa approach the nest, the hunkering becomes a melee of open beaks and flittering little wings. I haven't been marking a calendar, and my experience is obviously limited, but I'm guessing my hatchlings will become fledgling within a matter of a few more days. After their first flight, from what I've researched, they'll stick to the nest for about eleven more days before leaving it permanently.
When I first discovered my newest neighbors, I was a bit fascinated, but not terribly enthusiastic. Their choice of locations meant I couldn't close my garage door for an extended period, and I sure wasn't crazy about the way Martin and Martha dive-bombed me anytime I had the temerity to walk into my own garage. By the third day after the eggs hatched, I discovered a new downside when I saw a tiny little butt stick itself out of the nest and splat the remnants of its insect dinner on my garage floor. I can tell you none of my kids were ever so easily potty trained! So, now I'm hosing out my garage every other day, too.
Trying to make the best of a bad situation, I've now spent enough time in the garage that Martin and Martha no longer treat me like an unwelcome in-law. As long as I'm sitting, not standing, they'll even perch within three or four feet of my chair and pretty much ignore anything I do. They go a bit spastic when I fire up the riding mower, but that's short lived and, apparently, quickly forgiven. They're interesting to watch, I love the lighter bug population, so figured I could live with four to six weeks of inconvenience. Besides which, what choice did I have?
Today, however, I discovered the true depth of my problems.
First, in researching much of what I've written above, I learned that my immediate inconvenience has just been doubled. Barn swallows typically produce, not one, but TWO broods a summer. Sometimes, though rarely, even three. Shortly after these two fledglings leave the nest, Martin and Martha will start the process all over again. Interestingly, the first brood will usually stick around and help gather food for the second brood. I guess that means I'll soon have four barn swallows flying in and out of the garage. Better come up with more names pretty soon, I suppose.
Second, I also discovered that my immediate problems have been extended beyond the immediate. Barn swallows mate for life and have this nasty habit of returning to the same nest year after year after year. More, their yearlings always nest within twenty miles of where they hatched, and often in the SAME building. I found one article where a farmer said his barn averaged between fifty to eighty nests every year. Oh, my.
And to think, all of this is just because I failed to close the garage door for a couple of days?
[This message has been edited by Ron (07-10-2004 12:54 PM).]