I’ve always been very fond of swallows. They are hard-working, industrious birds who are a joy to watch fly. When we first moved onto our farm here on Harkins Slough, almost all of the outbuildings, long in disuse, had innumerable mud nests about their eaves. We never actively discouraged them from nesting here, but over time there numbers steadily decreased. As we began to renovate and repurpose some of the buildings, and tore down the ones that were beyond repair, things simply became too active around here for them. Another factor in their decline is the fact that we planted trees and scrubs about the property—lots of them. As the trees grew, so did the number of songbirds that came to visit and nest here, some of which raid the swallow nests and displace them. One of the barn swallow nests in our backyard lean-to shed has been occupied by a black-headed phoebe for the last three years.

We have three types of swallows that visit us here. The first to arrive near the beginning of the year are the tree swallows. These beautiful birds, with their pure white undersides and deep blue-green, iridescent tops, love to swoop back and forth in great numbers over our cover crops, picking off flying insects. The cliff and barn swallows usually arrive by the middle of March. These are the birds that build their mud nests around our house and outbuildings— gourd-shaped clusters with round openings usually located under the eaves for the cliff swallows, and semi-circular cups attached to rafters or joists inside buildings for the barn swallows. The easiest way to tell these two apart is the tail—cliff swallows have medium length, squared tails while barn swallows have longer, forked ones.

While the number of swallows that nest here has declined over the years, we still have a few die-hards that have stuck it out. A pair of cliff swallows and its descendants has successfully nested in our garage for as long as we’ve been here. And this year, when a pair was flying in and out of my workshop, exploring the rafters for a nesting site, I somewhat reluctantly made the decision to leave the doors open and grant them access (they can be somewhat messy).

Several weeks ago as I was setting out seeds inside the workshop I was distracted by three cliff swallows that where hovering in slow circles up near the rafters. I have no idea if it was two males vying for the attention of a female, or if it was three members of the same family (apparently juvenile offspring will sometimes help their parents rear a new brood). They were, however, chattering away and seemed somewhat agitated. I stopped what I was doing and was bemusedly watching them when the first two made a final turn and banked their way out the large barn doors. The third went in pursuit of the other two and didn’t get more than 15 feet out the doors before a sharp-shinned hawk suddenly swooped down from the barn roof and snatched it out of mid-air.

I was stunned. I found myself shouting out and taking a few futile steps in pursuit. They hadn’t even been here that long, but I had somehow felt protective of them. They were one of the things that make life rich and interesting around here and now they were gone. If you are prone to assigning human emotions to other creatures, like I am, something like this can seem tragic–migrating thousands of miles from South America, only to meet ones end just before settling down with your mate.

The swallows stayed away for more than a full week, but I am happy to report that they have returned—at least two of them—and are putting the finishing touches on their nest as I speak.

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