Barn swallows are wonderful birds. Since our first summer here, these little things have provided us with so much entertainment and joy and, yes, some tears (when the snake got the whole nest of babies, when the first "jumper" died on the concrete before we discovered him, when a pair of them banged into a window during the spring "chase" – where they swoop after one another at top speed as part of the mating ritual – and one was instantly dead while the other was stunned and I held her and talked to her for a couple of hours until she was able to fly again).
To us now, the return of the swallows marks the beginning of the outdoor season. We’ve had some remarkable triumphs, too. When I rescued the fallen baby last year and fed him cat food every ten to fifteen minutes for a day and a half, the year we had the late freeze, after the eggs were laid, but they still hatched anyway, the baby who was reluctant to leave the nest and when he did, ended up hanging upside down by his feet, but got turned over and learned to fly. And of course, the six or seven rescues of this year’s "wild child" when he would get rambunctious and tumble off the ledge onto the blanket and I’d have to go out and scoop him up and put him back where he belonged.
This morning, I woke up to a cacophony of bird calls. I had checked on them around 5:45 (as I’ve gotten in the habit of doing since the falling began) and they were fine. I went back to sleep, and around 7:30 I heard the adult birds making a huge noise; it was their “something’s wrong” cries, so I got up and hurried upstairs and just as I got to the top of the stairs, I could see them (about ten or twelve of them) dive bombing something on the bedroom roof next to the balcony. I saw a blur of movement from something bigger than them and then by the time I got into the office to the door leading out to the balcony, it was gone. I think it was a squirrel but not sure – it could have been a cat or even a hawk but the nature of the movement just made me think "squirrel."
Anyway, the adults continued to circle and give their alarm cries, and flutter up to the nest and around and around. But there was no movement from the nest – usually when the adult birds fly in, the babies raise their heads up and start cheeping for food. It was deathly silent, but I could see that there were babies in the nest. After a while, I couldn’t stand it so I went out there and climbed up on the table to look more closely. The babies were all piled on top of each other, perfectly still, eyes open. I waved my hand in front of them – no movement at all.
I woke Tom up and told him I thought the babies were dead. He came upstairs and we watched for half an hour or so, as the adult birds continued to circle and cry like they did when the snake took the babies last year. We were both just sick about losing another brood so close to fledging time, especially after all we’ve gone through, watching for the little “wild child” to jump out and picking him up and put him back in the nest every time. We discussed whether to try to get them out and bury them, but decided to wait a while for the adults to calm down.
Well, a few minutes later I was going to the bedroom and I glanced up through the top windows at the nest and I saw something moving. I called to Tom – “hey, one of them is alive.” He didn’t believe me at first, but then he saw it too. Then we saw two little mouths open up. What a relief that they weren’t all gone. After a few minutes, we saw two more heads pop up. We figured the squirrel or cat or whatever it was had gotten one and scared the others. But then, a few minutes ago, Tom called me and told me he saw all five babies.
So apparently all those dive-bombing birds scared the predator away before it could get anyone – and it seems the babies are smart enough to play dead when something comes up there. They certainly fooled me. Come to think of it, a few times when I’ve climbed up to put the fallen one back in the nest, the others would be “asleep.” I guess it’s a tactic of theirs, although I can’t find anything about it on the web. Maybe I have the first documented case (well, sort of documented).
Anyway, all’s well that ends well and all our babies are alive and well. Not sure whether Darwin was thwarted or proven right in this case. I guess the fittest DID survive.
Here’s a picture of the daddy bird that I love, as it looks to me as if he’s laughing with joy. It was taken a few days ago, but it expresses exactly how I felt this morning when we realized they were all alive.
Daddy bird, laughing