Grit Blogs > Domestic Episodes of a Rodeo Princess

The Barn Swallows Return

A photo of Shirley Rodeo VanScoykThe barn swallows are back! Every year they arrive here on or around my birthday (April 24th). I was in the yard, thinking about all my birthday surprises. When I glanced skyward, a pair swooped through the open door of the barn.

I get an "all's right with the world" feeling when I see them. What a blessing – animals that come home without me calling, that I don't have to feed, that take care of their babies without my help. They are the cherry on the sundae of my spring! A being that, like my daughter-in-law says, appears just for extra happiness! Aristotle insisted that one swallow (or one happy thing) does not make a spring (or a person happy). Oh, go suck a lemon. As long as there have been happy things, someone has been around to deflate the moment.

This group of barn swallows have, I imagine, been coming to my barn since around 1790. I actually researched this as best I could on the Internet, so I wasn't building idle daydreams on wishes. Something I have been trying lately, as a point of evolution – not rejecting facts because they collide with any convenient theory that I might come up with. And yes, people who care about these things assert that barn swallows have, forever, been following humans around and nesting in their buildings, tolerated for their attractiveness and their voracious appetite for flying insects. Meaning, like camp followers, they migrated with the European settlers from the coasts of the Northeast going from cabin to barn as settlement spread inland. Maybe that first woman who lived here, the one that left her hair pins in the rafters over the fireplace in the basement, watched the barn swallows follow her man's plowing, like I watched them swoop and swirl after Charles as he mowed the field.

I found out this morning as I read up on them a little, that DNA studies show that barn swallows from here colonized the Baikal area of Siberia. This is not a direction that is expected in bird migration circles, but the idea pleases me. You only have to watch them (not count them, analyze them, or catch them and dissect them) to see how errant they are, how they have a wonderful independence that defies gravity and sense to realize that sense and science are only going to explain so much about them, and the rest is left to that plan greater than us.

A barn swallow's life is not all being a happy harbinger of spring. Like all things that eat, a barn swallow is prey to larger species, like the American kestrel, which nests here, too. I'm not the boss here, I don't make all the rules so acceptance of the checks and balances of life is part of my tenancy. I have watched kestrels pluck barn swallows out of the air, but I have also seen the same kestrel fly smack into the barn while chasing a twirling barn swallow aerialist as it flew effortlessly into a tiny crack in the barn siding. Mrs. Kestrel hovered over him in the air, screaming what sounded like the bird version of the Honey Brook Cursing Dance until he picked himself up off the ground and took flight again. Hey, they were just trying to feed their kids.

I wish the kestrels would eat the bluebirds. Oh, stop! I know those are like the Golden Child of bird people, but honestly if you compare that demanding, picky species with all their requirements for special housing and fickle parenting with the barn swallow, WHO is exactly more useful? The barn swallow prefers to rebuild old nests. The babies that are born first in the spring stick around all summer and feed their younger siblings. Your flock begins in the spring with three couples and at the end of the summer you have forty or fifty Cirque De Barn performers doing a show with no matinees. Hours and hours of entertainment, right on the lawn, a useful search for food (bugs) turned ballet. I read they eat TONS of bugs. Those bugs are somebody's baby, too. It's just what happens.

What DOESN'T happen here is messing with nests. One kid, never invited back, decided that the mud nests were hornet's nests and attacked them with a stick. His mother and I don't speak. A horse boarder hung fly strips (completely unnecessary) that snared swallows out of the air and meant I had to drown three in the trough, to put them out of their misery. I put myself out of misery by sending her and her horse packing.

Some experts insist that they mate for life, but apparently that is when the experts are watching. We have the same drama in the barn, eight feet above the ground where their nests are, that we have in the chicken house. Males defend their mate and territory unless they are busy trying to invade some other male's territory and mate with their female. The females have kind of a (press hand back to forehead and appear overcome) boys will be boys attitude about it. I wonder how much T.S. Eliot knew about this, when he wrote "Quando fiam uti chelidon [ut tacere desinam]?" ("When will I be like the swallow, so that I can stop being silent?") in "The Waste Land"? And why did he write it in Latin?

If I ever get another tattoo, it will be a barn swallow. Sailors used to get one after returning home safe after a journey of 5,000 miles and another, if they ever returned after another. Sailors with two swallows were rare. Things happen.

I feel like I am on that second trip.