How Many Swallows Make a Summer?

by Lois Rice
Illustrations by Lois Rice

© 1997 Lois Rice

One day a few weeks ago when our daughter was visiting us, we noticed a pair of barn swallows twittering excitedly and flying repeatedly into an L-shaped corner of our house where a gutter pipe comes down under the eaves. Several times the pair perched on nearby electric service wires to "talk it over."
The next day nest building commenced. There was plenty of mud because of all the rain we'd had, and the walls went up quickly. They anchored the nest securely on the corrugations at the bend of the pipe. Soon the nest was completed and needed a few days to dry and harden.
Next, we'd see the female spend some time on the nest each day for the next several days and we knew she was laying eggs. Then came time to incubate the eggs. We felt sorry for the birds in the near-100-degree weather. Even though shaded by the eave, there wasn't much air circulation in the corner, and she sat panting on the little mud nest. We knew when the eggs were hatching by the excitement both parents showed, dashing about and chattering to tell the world.
They often alternated feeding the new babies, with one finishing just as the other flew in with another morsel. It took less than a second to stuff an insect into a gaping throat. Sometimes a third adult bird would try to get into the act--whether to help feed the young or to harm them we didn't know, but the parents chased the intruder away with much scolding.
We enjoyed sitting in the shade of a pin oak in our back yard watching the activity with binoculars. As the young birds grew, the parents became more protective and would dive within a few inches of us, before veering away. One followed me to the garden, diving at me and scolding all the way, "be-beeet. be-beeet."
The little birds grew fast, and in about two weeks we knew they would soon leave the nest. They strengthened their wings by clinging to the rim of the nest, fanning and flapping vigorously. The big moment came on a Sunday morning while we were at church. When we returned, three young swallows were perched on the wires, and, surprise! One more was still in the nest! We had seen only three at a time previously. The young did not have the full length wing and tail feathers, and they fluttered timidly on the short flight back to the nest. By mid-afternoon all were safely home again, fed hundreds of mosquitoes and other small insects by the hard-working parents. Next day was chilly and very windy and they didn't leave the nest at all.
By the end of that week, with wings and tails appearing to be nearly full grown, they could fly almost as well as their parents. Their days were spent on the wing, bug-catching. They left early each morning and returned before dusk, trying, with a good deal of fussing and twittering, to fit themselves into the now-too-small nest. Often, one or two would perch on the nearby wire under the eave.
It's a thrill to see half a dozen swallows gracefully darting near our home and swooping over our fields, where for several years we saw few. By then we'd decided it took just six swallows to 'make' our summer!
It is now early August and the swallows are sitting on the eggs of a second brood in the same nest! At times I see one of the adults perched near the nest, while another bird is in it. Are these both adults, or could Mother be teaching one of the first-brood youngsters what has to be done, or do the parents alternate on the nest?
One day we saw twenty swallows perched on the electric service wire, and with another one on the nest, we had a total of 21! 'Our' swallow family had teamed up with families from somewhere else! Later, I saw them swirling around the top of our tallest white pine. Sometimes several would light on the very tips of twigs, fluttering there for a few seconds. Were they finding insects on the pine?
We eagerly await the second brood hatch, due about Aug. 9th we think. I have read that young from the first brood often help with feeding the new babies. It will be interesting to learn if that is true.
How many swallows make a summer? The more the merrier, we think!

copyright 1997 Lois Rice, all rights reserved

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