A Summer of Swallows

We have had visitors this summer in the form of a mating pair of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica). I want to write about my experience of their presence over the summer, and my relationship or contact with them.

End of May: The pair arrived and began their yearly process of chick-rearing by searching the interior of the barn for a good site to nest. I had a human-made wicker robin's nest that someone had given us for Christmas, so I put that up just below the roof in the hopes that they would use this as a nest, and so make it easier for them. It was completely ignored!

They settled on two spots, and so started taking nesting materials - grass, hen feathers, moss and a small bit of mud - to the two sites, and then settled on the lower of the two. It was at the apex of two steel girders which form the gable end of the barn. It's about 4 metres from the ground and nearest to the barn door.

9/6/18 - Five swallow eggs

9th June: I put up the ladder and crept up to have a look at the nest. They had laid 5 eggs. To give an idea of size: they were a bit smaller than Cadbury's mini eggs. I was so happy that they had definitely chosen the barn as a site to raise chicks - they had put down roots.

Barn swallows incubate their eggs for 14-19 days. Only the female incubates the eggs. She develops a brood patch where she loses feathers on her underside so as to increase the transfer of heat to the eggs, and so the embryos. When I put the back of my fingers just above the eggs, they felt unnaturally warm.

Middle of June: In going into the barn to work, or to watch the swallows, I found that the male 'relaxed' in my presence, and would stay put, where the female would always fly off. This stayed the same throughout their stay. During this period, by staying out of sight of swallows, I found that the female and male would come in and the female would incubate the eggs for 5-15 minutes, with the male staying watch/guard (?) for the first few minutes and then leaving.

9th July: I was away for the chicks hatching, and on my return I found all five chicks had fallen out of the nest and died on a ledge 1.5 metres below the nest. I was gutted, and wondered what the parents were feeling/thinking. What did they feel in response to over four weeks of hard work 'wasted"? How did they feel that their five chicks had died?

It appeared that they had fallen out of the back off the nest and down a gap in the timber cladding of the barn. I rectified this by blocking off the gap, and also put a small piece of wood at the front edge of the girder where the nest was. The parents did a large amount of work to the nest, and added much more mud, and the nest went from being pretty flat, to the more traditional bowl shape.

26th July: So, with the nest Mk. 2 completed, I crept up the ladder again, and found that they had laid four eggs. I was relieved that they had had another go.

5/8/18 - Three newly hatched chicks and one left to go

5th August: I checked the nest every few days, and on this day I was clearing some timber up, and noticed a swallow egg shell on the ground. My heart sank as I thought that a predatory bird had been in and eaten the eggs. So up the ladder I went, and to my great surprise and pleasure three of the eggs had hatched with one left to go! They were tiny little chicks, and must have been approximately 10-15mm long.

Barn swallow chicks take between 18-23 days to fledge (i.e. fly the nest). So, the count was on! I went up to see the nest every few days to see how they grew, and it still amazes me that they grow a huge amount, and nearly to full size, in just three weeks. 

Evening of 27/8/18 after their first day of flying

27th August: They flew the nest! I didn't see this, but they were all still there in the morning, and when I went to have a look later that day, the nest was empty. The parents were still feeding them, and at night they were coming back into the barn to roost.

At the time of writing this (11/9/18) they still haven’t left yet. Every night they come back to roost in the barn: four white-chested chicks snuggled up in a line on one of the steel supports in the roof. They're a noisy lot, and if I approach the barn without being seen or heard, I can hear them chattering away to each other incessantly. During the day they are off with their parents. I imagine that they are learning to feed themselves and grow in preparation for their long journey to Southern Africa.

So, why did I write about this? The obvious first point is that I love swallows. Watching them soar, glide and whizz past makes me feel happy; optimistic; free. And to have them nesting so nearby is an honour.

But there is something crucial here about the relationship between human and non-human: how do we live in relationship with the natural world around us? In having the swallows nesting here I chose to be involved. I had to leave the barn door open and unlocked for four months; I tried to reduce the number of times I had to go into the barn whilst they were incubating the eggs and did not go in after dark; I did some DIY on that area of the barn to stop the next lot of chicks falling out of the nest; I put a tray of mud outside the barn in the hot, dry weather to help with nest building (not that they used it); I kept the area below the nest free as they came close to fledging to allow the chicks an easier first flight, rather than having to dodge the tractor on their way out; and the cats were kept in during fledging when the chicks may have been most vulnerable to predators. That said, I still had to carry on with the usual tasks, such as stacking the hay, and moving the tractor in and out, which will have disturbed them. So, we had to live in relationship with each other. I had needs and they had needs and there was, consciously or unconsciously, a compromise of those needs. 

Many would argue that the natural world should be left to its own devices, and that humans should not get involved. My fear with this is that humans will become more disconnected from our natural roots, and, conversely, have a greater negative impact on the environment. I believe that it is by being in relationship with others that we then learn to regulate our behaviour in relation to the other (in this case, the natural world). If we isolate ourselves from the natural world in a misguided attempt to save it, we will likely end up damaging it more.

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