Barn Swallows

Nearly Touched by an Angel

Barn Swallows"Some birds have made a nest on our front porch," Mary phoned to tell me. She sounded upset. "Their backs are a pretty blue color, and we do like them, but I just want to know how long it will be until they're done and we can use our front door again."

"Sounds like Barn Swallows," I replied, secretly envying her. "They're lovely birds, and quite friendly to people. I don't think it'll bother them for you use the door."

"But they've started attacking us!" she exclaimed. "Every time anyone steps on the porch, they swoop right at us, especially at Joey. I'm afraid they might injure him." Joey was her seven-year-old son.

The birds hadn't objected to the child at first. Mary described how Joey stood on the porch and watched the birds build their nest. They flew over him confidently, carrying straw and mud, and built a large, somewhat untidy structure on the ledge over a window. Even after the eggs were laid, the birds remained tolerant. Joey's father lifted the boy up so he could see, and the swallow that was sitting on the eggs didn't even twitch.

The end of peace

But then the eggs hatched, and that was the end of peace on the porch. Now every time someone went in or out, the swallows buzzed them. I'd run into this sort of thing before. The previous year, someone told me that their Barn Swallows changed from friendly to ferocious on the very day the eggs hatched, as if some innate pattern of defense had been triggered.

I told Mary the swallows would stay in the nest for about three weeks after hatching. She groaned. She guessed her family could use the back door, but it was not conveniently located. "Well," I reassured her, "even if you did keep using the front door, the birds wouldn't actually touch you. Your family is in absolutely no danger from the swallows."

Barn Swallows have tiny, weak bills, not designed for fighting. Their toes are neither strong nor sharp and are never used as weapons. The "attacks" are all bluff, designed to drive predators away.

It can be a pretty convincing bluff. Swallows willingly risk their lives to swoop at Sharp-shinned Hawks or other animals that threaten the young. And when a pair of swallows initiates this behavior, neighboring swallows are likely to join in. Their communal effort often succeeds in driving the predator away.

Nesting Barn Swallows occasionally get so keyed up that a flock will chase a grass-nibbling rabbit and send it skittering off across the field. But none of their bravado has the force of might behind it. No Barn Swallow has ever been reported to so much as peck at any creature bigger than a fly.

Mary did not seem reassured. "Why don't you come over and see for yourself?" she suggested.

I see how it is

I went. It was an old wooden house on the edge of town, facing a grassy field. Although the house was small, it had a covered porch, like a little room with the front wall missing. Over the window was the nest, part of it cemented by mud onto the narrow ledge. The rest extended out into the air. Mary greeted me from the other side of the screen. "Joey and I'll watch from in here," she said, laughing.

The adult birds were away at the moment. But the babies seemed to think it was meal time, because two tiny bills poked above the nest rim and popped wide open.

I turned and faced the opening to the porch.

A Barn Swallow was flying toward me, on a collision course. To say I flinched would be an understatement. I backed up so fast I nearly fell backward through the screen door. The bird gauged my movement perfectly and gained on me even during the moment of my reflexive retreat.

The instant before contact, it shifted to a vertical posture and soared up over my head. I felt the wind of its wings on my face, and then it wheeled and dashed out to the field again.

But in the moment while I was stumbling backward, I saw the bird fan its tail and spread its long wings. Its underside, which was toward me, was golden buffy, and the long dark streamers of the forked tail were decorated with white spots as if set with diamonds. It looked something like an angel silhouetted vibrant against the sky. Stunned by the bird's beauty and embarrassed by my own lack of composure, I stood there with my mouth open. I heard Joey laughing, and Mary asked me if I was all right.

I didn't get to answer, because the other bird was coming at me. I knew that the swallow didn't intend to collide, so I schooled my resolve and held still. As before, I watched the bird alter its angle and shape at the last moment and zoom agilely over my head.

The giants respond

What impressed me, besides the courage of the small, delicate bird, was its ability to judge the space and distance while moving at such speed. I wondered if its time sense were more stretched out than mine. To the swallows, I might seem a giant, lumbering in slow motion.

Several more swallows joined the effort. As one dived at me, I put my hand quickly in front of my face and straightened my arm. The bird avoided it as easily as a floating leaf glides around a boulder in a stream.

When the next bird came, I put my hand up again, and again the bird evaded me effortlessly. However, at that, the swallows began to hang back, making only token swoops toward me. Instead they sailed low around the field in front of the house.

I heard the screen door open behind me, and then Joey was by my side, and then Mary next to him. One swallow responded by flying toward us and diving toward the child in the middle. Joey stood still as a soldier, except to put up his hand, palm out in front of his face. The bird pulled up short of us, in the angel posture, and then swung out to the field again.

"Wow! That was awesome!" Joey's bright little face was yearning toward the birds.

He looked up at me. "Will they come back?"

"Yes, Joey," I said. "They'll come back, but they're a little afraid of us right now. Let's leave them alone, so they can feed their babies." Mary and Joey went back in the house, and I went home.

How it turned out

Mary tells me that seven young Barn Swallows graduated from the porch that season. Four fledgelings came out of the nest over the window that spring, and then the swallows returned and raised three more in a new nest over the front door. When Joey and his parents went in and out they were careful not to slam the door. Sometimes the birds swooped at them, though never with their former intensity.

The Barn Swallows did not make a liar of me: they never harmed a hair of anyone's head. On many a summer day they were found swinging in liquid flight back and forth over the field in front of the house. They devoured unnumbered flying insects, including countless mosquitoes. And their cheerful twitters and warbles made music as sweet as any wind chimes hanging on a gracious old wooden porch.

Giving Barn Swallows what they need

Barn Swallows are found on all the continents of earth. They're great builders, mixing straw with clay so that it will hold together when it dries. It 's possible that humans learned from Barn Swallows how to build with clay.

Barn Swallows need a location sheltered from rain, because water would dissolve their nests. They often build in open barns, where they are welcomed for their help in checking insect populations. However, as old wooden barns come down, they are sometimes replaced by new barns of metal which lack beams for the birds build on. Hence, sometimes swallows are looking for other places to nest.

If you don't have a covered porch, Barn Swallows still might nest under your eaves. To encourage them, nail a 2 X 4 to a wall so that there is a 5-inch space between the board and the eaves.

Copyright 1998 by Diane Porter
Painting at top of page by John James Audubon

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