Nature Talks - pic1

Tree swallows check out this bird house.

OUR PROPERTY IS now absent of two bird species. I would think their absences are related but one I had something to do with and the other I did not (that I am aware of … ).

If you sit in our dining room starting around the end of May you might hear a faint thundering sound even though there isn’t a cloud in the sky. A little investigating after we first heard it 25 years ago determined that the sound was that of chimney swift parents fluttering their wings in the flue. A few weeks later, high-pitched chirping signaled hatchlings; the chirping would get louder by the week until the nestlings fledged. Occasionally I’ve had to help a nestling out of the hearth by letting it climb on a broom and lift the broom into the flue where it would scurry up the side to the nest.

I loved having chimney swifts in the chimney; I’ve written about them here before. We were advised many times to cap the flue to prevent them from nesting. No way! My thinking is that any bird that flew from New Hampshire to Peru each fall was welcome to spend the summer in my chimney. In fact, I considered taking a trip to Peru myself and seeing if I could locate them in their winter habitat — after 20-plus years in our dining room, I thought, they must recognize my voice. Maybe they would hear me there in Peru and seek me out.

And now they seem to be gone. For the second year in a row, no chimney swifts in the dining room flue. I do not know why. This is not only sad but also is a mystery since nothing involving the chimney has changed.

The other bird missing from my summer is the barn swallow. This is unintentionally my fault. Preservation contractors came last November to repair the rotten sill and floor along the back (east side) of our 1837 English side hill barn. At the time I was mostly worried about the porcupines that live under the barn. I have come to enjoy them but I was afraid the contractors would want them gone before they ripped up the floor. No worries, they have seen all this before. Besides, they said, porcupines are not aggressive; the contractors just kind of wait until they lumber out of the way. In fact, I witnessed the latest resident come home in the mornings while I was feeding the horses, an hour or so before the contractors arrived. When the floor was ripped up, he just moved farther ahead for his daytime snooze.

The crew did a beautiful job. The back of the barn, having been wide open for many years, was now buttoned up to help prevent the new sill work from rotting any time soon. All winter I enjoyed the snug feel of the barn. But it wasn’t until late in the spring, when a Facebook friend posted about the barn swallows having returned to her barn, that I exclaimed “oh no!” The barn swallows — there had come to be three or four pairs each year who raised a couple broods apiece — probably came back, couldn’t get in to the barn, and went to find a new place. I missed their chatter and the chorus of the nestlings as their parent approached with food.

According to David Sibley in “The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior,” “Barn swallows used to build their mud and grass nests on cliff ledges and even in small trees, but they have shifted almost entirely to nesting in buildings and under bridges.” Shoot. Now I feel worse. I will figure out a way to address this in hopes of welcoming them back next year.

The missing swifts and swallows came to mind on my morning kayak on the lake around the corner the other day. My habit is to warm up by gradually paddling to a small but long island across the lake, lazily float and paddle around the island, then get in some more vigorous paddling on the way back to our beach. I almost always encounter the lake’s pair of loons along the way, which I did this time. The shrub- and tree-covered island usually has an interesting bird or two to watch. Last time I was there it was a flock of cedar waxwings. This time, as I approached the island I could see a flock of birds swooping around, dipping and diving individually and as a group. Although it was nearly impossible to get a good picture with my phone, I could identify them. White underneath and a dark blue on the back. Tree swallows. Not my beloved chimney swifts or barn swallows, but they were a welcome sight.


Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at