Our third batch of baby swallows for the year has just hatched, and the mom and dad birds are diligently swapping out feeding duties as they always do. You can’t see them yet – it’s usually at least a week before they’re big enough to peek over the edge of the nest – but we knew the blessed event had happened when we found the eggshells on the patio under the nest yesterday.
After three summers here, we’ve got this swallow-raising thing down pat, or thought we had. But this year has presented special challenges for our little feathered friends. They came in early, in March, and settled right in. This time, instead of using last year’s nest, they built a new one "next door" (the supports for our upper balcony create a row of compartments under our eaves, as you can see in the following picture, and the birds have made use of them):
By the first part of April, the mom bird had already laid eggs and was sitting. But then we had an unexpected April freeze, and I was afraid the eggs might not survive. We were on pins and needles until they hatched – and not only did they all make it, but we had five babies, one more than the usual brood. It was a great group, too. They seemed to have strong little personalities as we watched them grow and venture out of the nest and finally fledge. And even after they fledged, they kept coming back to the nest at night for a couple of weeks; usually after a week or so they leave and find someplace else to sleep.
Then came the second batch. Normally, a pair of swallows has two broods per summer and this couple wasted no time getting started on their next family. Things were going great – the new batch of babies (just four this time) hatched and were about four or five days away from fledging, already starting to stretch their wings and perch on the edge of the nest, when tragedy struck.
One morning, I heard the adult swallows chattering and chirping madly and went to the window to see them all flying ’round and ’round the nest – six or eight of them, not just our two parents. And the babies were nowhere to be seen. My first thought was that they’d fledged early, but that thought didn’t last long. I’ve been through five previous fledgings and I knew this behavior wasn’t normal. And when the little ones first fledge, they don’t do it that suddenly – one goes, then maybe an hour later another one tries it, and so forth. Also, they stick around close by the first day, usually landing on our fence or roof ledge or balcony and hanging out there for hours before trying their wings again.
I called Tom and we went outside to try to see if we could see them anywhere. Meanwhile, all the adult birds were still going nuts. Obviously they had discovered the babies missing and were as confused as we were. On the way back into the house, I saw it: a grey and black snake hanging off the little patio table under the nest. And I knew what had happened to our little ones.
Tom grabbed a post hole digger (the first weapon he happened upon in the storage shed) and made sure the snake would never eat another baby bird. Now I don’t have anything against snakes in general, and yes, I know the snake was just trying to survive (although that didn’t work out so well), but no way were we going to let this one go, and later remember that our patio was a good place to find a meal.
Then we found one of the babies floating in the pool. Apparently it had escaped the snake but wasn’t yet able to fly and so landed in the water. We retrieved its little body, with the white rim around its mouth that distinguishes the babies from the adults, put it in a little box and buried it in the back corner of the yard. We both cried a little over the little ones that never got to fly, but we were glad that one of them did get the chance, even if only for a moment, and that the snake didn’t get to make a meal of it.
That night, we wondered if the mom and dad bird would even come back, or would they leave in search of a safer place? We couldn’t blame them if they did. But at dark, they were back home, this time sitting right next to one another on the ledge with their bodies touching. Usually they slept a foot or so apart, facing each other. And they continued to stay close together at night for the next week. Meanwhile, during the day, they were already building a new nest a couple of compartments down from the old one.
The spirit and determination of these little creatures is inspiring. Unlike human couples, who are so often torn apart both individually and as couples by the death of their offspring, our birds seemed to mourn their loss and then picked up and went on with their mission: creating more swallows. And even though, according to what I’ve read, it’s rare for barn swallows to lay eggs three times in a summer, they and we now have a third brood to worry over (much more than before) and raise.
And now I realize that what that snake did went beyond killing that one batch of baby birds. He also destroyed my ability to enjoy them the way I did before. Now, instead of just delighting in the hatching and watching them grow each day, I’m anxious for them to hurry and fledge so they’ll be safer and can get away from predators. Every half hour or so throughout the day, I’m up and at the back window, checking on the nest, making sure everything is okay, checking all around for any sign of a snake.
But the experience also made them more precious to me. I think we were starting to take them for granted a little. The first year we were here and found that we’d been blessed with these miraculous little mosquito eaters who shared our space, we were fascinated. After watching several broods hatch and fledge, we still enjoyed them but their presence had become routine.
We don’t take them for granted any more. The snake experience reminds us that living things are terribly fragile and that those we love can be here and then gone in an instant. Losing a nestful of swallows made us stop and think about a lot more than just birds. Life is a wonderful thing and I think we appreciate it just a little bit more now.
But for now, gotta go check on the babies.