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.

dancin cowgirl
7/2/2011 12:28:08 AM

Loved your post. Got a great photo of the four babies in my barn today. I can post it if you tell me where. Right now it's on my Facebook page. I love that they come back to my barn year after year and fly all the way to Central and South America in the winter. Long distant migrants. I am in Washington State. The male was dive bombing my barn cat today - she's a hunter so that's good.


s.m.r. saia
5/12/2010 12:38:40 PM

Rodeo, what a funny and educational story. My favorite parts are the things that get you kicked out of Rodeo's place! :0)


rodeo princess
5/4/2010 8:34:38 PM

SandyK - I am not a bird expert, but one year we had NO birds. They came back the next year. But also, they just might not have arrived yet. Weather could have held them up. Keep me posted.


sandyk
5/4/2010 3:59:24 PM

I live on Ohio's North Coast region and have had many Barn Swallows in our barn over the past 38 years. Family after family! However, they have not returned (yet?) this spring. There must be at least 7 empty nests. It is very sad. What do you think may have happened? Could natural predators or weather eliminate a whole family or have they simply moved somewhere else. We find this very puzzling and sad...


rodeo princess
5/4/2010 6:29:52 AM

Oh, Cindy Cindy Cindy, you made me laugh! That is so FARMER of you to worry about the birds getting in the barn to feed their babies! What a kind person you are!


cindy murphy
5/4/2010 5:08:06 AM

Happy Belated Birthday, Rodeo. Loved the post....love the barn swallows we have at the nursery in the barn too; they're busily building their mud nests in the rafters now, swooping in and out of the building constantly. Cool to think they're probably from the same family of swallows that I've watched since I started working there over ten years ago....and the same family for much longer than that. There are dozens of nests in the barn every year. I used to naively worry that the babies would go hungry when I closed up the barn at the end of the day, and I would actually stand there and try to call the adults home before I hit the button to close the doors, (eye-roll). Of course, my calls went unheeded, and my worry was unnecessary. You're right - they find their way in through the tiniest cracks. Enjoy your unbirthday day.


rodeo princess
5/3/2010 7:00:30 PM

Nebraska and Mountain Woman, thanks so much for your comments. I do adore my barn swallows. They have made good progress on the nests since last week - any day now we will have eggs, then babies. I hope to get pictures, but they are almost impossible to catch as an image!


nebraska dave
5/3/2010 6:32:54 PM

Rodeo, I don’t have a barn hence no barn swallows. We have Robins, Sparrows, Bluejays, and an occasional Wood Pecker can be heard hammering away. We have a nasty crow looking bird that we call crackles. I’m not sure what their real name is but they are a sizable bird that chases all other birds away and then can’t really get along with each other. They will absolutely destroy a bird feeder and move on. They are the Hell’s Angels Biker Birds of the Bird world. We have Hawks that float on the wind waiting for its prey to appear. We have two pairs of Bald Eagles that that have been sighted the along the Missouri River bluffs. Because of the growing pigeon population in the city they released Peregrine Falcons in the tall buildings of the down town area. There are several pairs that lurk about snatching pigeons in mid flight. We have the infamous birds for hunters. The pheasants, quail, wild ducks, and wild geese all wet the hunter’s appetites when the season comes around. Of course we have the state bird which is the Meadow Lark which can be heard in the farm fields or while driving along country roads. We have a menagerie of birds in Nebraska and I expect there are barn swallows as well but I haven’t seen them. Thanks for sharing about the barn swallow migration to your property.


mountain woman
5/3/2010 3:48:18 PM

Rodeo, I'm so jealous of your having barn swallows. I had two that visited my barn last summer and stayed for a couple of days but then they moved on. They were the most fantastic birds I had ever experienced. I think it is so wonderful the same birds have been visiting you since the 1700s and you have been able to trace it back. What a sense of history and place that must give you. I was horrified to read about the fly strips. I'd be angry too. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this post and a very happy belated birthday to you.