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Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: Barn swallows make the barn more cheerful

By CHERYL KIMBALL July 21. 2017 11:52PM

Young barn swallows peek out over the edge of their mud nest. (Courtesy/Cheryl Kimball)

A FRIEND POSTED on Facebook recently that for the first time in a long time, phoebes did not nest in her barn this year but barn swallows did. My experience was almost the opposite — swallows always nest inside the barn but never phoebes. This year, two barn swallow pairs as well as a phoebe pair built nests and raised their broods in the rafters of the three-story barn.

Barn swallows, like chimney swifts, remind me of the chicken-and-the-egg conundrum. These birds must have existed prior to the human-made structures of barns and chimneys. What were they called then? According to the “Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Bird/Eastern Region,” “the great majority of (barn swallows) now nest on or in buildings, but originally they used rocky ledges over streams and perhaps attached their nests to tree trunks in the shelter of branches … .” Perhaps they were just called swallows.

At least six of their mud nests are stuck to various rafters in the open roof areas of our barn. “The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior” says swallows will repair and reuse nests, and they often nest near humans. Most newly built nests are built by both the male and female — although the female typically lines the nest (with a penchant for white feathers, says Petersens “A Field Guide to Birds’ Nests”) and incubates the young.

I very much enjoy the chattering arrival of the barn swallows in the spring. They busily report on the progress of their nest building. Things then get quiet for a while during incubation. Once the little hatchlings arrive they make it well known that they have expectations for food. Their high-pitched chatter is nonstop for a couple weeks. When I think to look up, I can see the brood peering out over the edge of the nest. Depending on how many eggs hatch from the typical four to seven incubated, which takes around two weeks, things can get pretty crowded in the nest. Several broad yellow-rimmed beaks poke out over the edge of the nest in a rather comical scene. And this happens at least twice and sometimes three times per couple during the early summer.

Anything directly below the nest gets thoroughly covered with guano. Once the children become fledglings, the guano is pretty much everywhere although not concentrated so not as noticeable. The young birds seem pretty excited about flying and chatter quite a bit about their newly found skill. We have a small wooden boat hanging upside down from pulleys in the side of the barn that is open from the floor to the roof; the young swallows love to line up on the angled rope from the boat to the pulley.

Swallows are incredible aerialists. The barn swallow, says Sibley, has a “distinctive long, forked tail” making it easy to identify. “The barn swallow’s tail gives the bird remarkable maneuverability, and it helps males to attract mates. However, these advantages are offset by the cost of an unusually long tail, including the extra energy for flight and the bird’s increased vulnerability to predators” (which I interpret to mean the long tail gives a predator more to grab onto).

Barn swallows have clearly mastered the art of species preservation. The “Field Guide to Birds’ Nests” (Harrison) says that “as many as 55 nests reported in one barn; six-eight usual. Several instances of nesting on moving boats.”

These elegant and athletic little birds are a pleasure to have around. They eat lots and lots of insects and their variety of vocalizations, including a chortling sound, are cheerful reminders of the pleasures of summer.

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Sunday night was supposed to provide the southern parts of Northern New England with perhaps the best chance ever of seeing the Aurora Borealis. I set my alarm for 1 a.m. and headed out to the front lawn, chuckling at myself when I realized that I was tiptoeing as if the AB would hear me and disappear. We do not have the best vantage in the first place since the horizon is not visible in any direction, and cloud cover had crept in from all directions except right overhead. I kept imagining that I saw strange light to the north or the west or the east, but in fact the northern lights did not appear. That’s okay; I am fine with having something left on my bucket list.

Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at naturetalksck@gmail.com.


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