Mission bells ring as crowds gather, with all eyes turned toward the skies. Mariachis play, a parade marches past and a huge fiesta kicks off to celebrate the annual return of the legendary Cliff Swallows at Mission Capistrano in California. While Roger and I may not greet the ancestral migration of the equally loyal and remarkable Swallows of Crockern with a fete, we find their annual return and summer visit remarkable nonetheless. (See also, https://crockernfarm.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/bird-song-dartmoor-cuckoos/).
Consider the distance they’ve traveled from Africa, managing to negotiate their way back to their birthplace, here at Crockern, just to raise their young at our house. Admittedly, I could use some of their navigational skills as more than a few times I’ve found myself lost down a Dartmoor country lane. Once here, the Swallows roost under the eaves of the house; inside the barn, chicken coop, and all the sheds; on top of some fencing we left propped up in a corner; and, among debris I was planning to take to the tip, but now must delay.
There is an old saying, “When the Swallows fly high, the weather will be dry.” I remain skeptical as to whether or not one can accurately predict the weather by observing the flight pattern of a Swallow, but their busy nature does confirm a fine day in the making. The warmer and dryer the weather, the more bugs and with them, more Swallows on the hunt. We have had an extended run of clear days this summer and so have been outside addressing a number of projects. In the past two weeks we have completed our track repairs, built a concrete base for a new oil tank, mended more of the stonewalls, and kept abreast with the growth in the vegetable garden. Being outside for most of the day I am drawn to watching the zigzagging flight patterns of our Swallows. I know we don’t own these Swallows, but I think of them as part of the gang of critters and creatures who consider Crockern their home and as such, they are part of our family.
Like any family member, they give great joy along with the occasional annoyance. Take for instance their wonderful chirping calls as they dive bomb through the air feeding along the way. Swallows have a number of songs to communicate excitement, attract a mate, or issue an alarm. Typically, their delightful musical twitterings are comprised of a simple melody followed by clicking sounds. But the call denoting “Feed Me!” by the young, that early morning demand and begging solicitation, is most uncivilized and wakes me up. This is neither cute nor clever.
Despite this rude awakening, I find Swallows to be among the loveliest of birds with their graceful movements and bodies shining blue and black when the sun hits their glossy wings. I like seeing their pale bellies, splashes of red at their throat, and those long tail feathers as they soar through the air. Sometimes when the Swallows return up the valley, I watch their flying dance imaging if each were trailing long bits of fibre, how they could easily braid a rope. Mostly, I find their flight agility as nothing short of miraculous. It’s a noisy, busy, aerial display available daily confirming the most basic truth: the smallest things make life wonderful.
There are few predators agile enough to catch a Swallow, but sometimes Sparrowhawks or Hobbies are able to do so in flight. I love Sparrowhawks and cheer on their survival, but I do not want to be witness to the snatching of a Swallow. Which side to choose? While shoveling the umpteenth bucket of rocks (by the end of a single day, nearly two tones shoveled and moved) to make the concrete mixture, I looked up and saw a scene reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds, with about thirty Swallows mobbing a Sparrowhawk near the trees by the river. From the distance, I don’t know if the Sparrowhawk held a Swallow in its clutches, but I do know that the Flight of Swallows saw off this spectacular bird of prey.
I enjoy the aerial acrobatics of these elegant birds and happily benefit from their insect hawking expertise. Mosquitoes, Midges and Aphids are among the Swallows’ food, captured and devoured almost constantly while in flight. The Swallows may be helping our broad beans survival since our beans have a few aphids, despite the companion planting of nastursum (admittedly, planted too late) and leaving a patch of nettles nearby. I recently learned that a Swallow consumes 60 insects per hour, based on a 14-hour day, that’s a whopping 840 per day! At last count, we have twenty-three nests, with at least 2-6 Swallows per nest, so by my calculations, that is over 77,000 fewer insects, on average, when we are enjoying our bar-b-que. How can you not love Swallows?
And so what if they are a bit piggish, aren’t they entitled? These birds give new meaning to Puritan Work Ethic: constantly catching food, repairing nests, singing songs, and coursing back and forth over 600 miles a day, at an average speed of 45 miles per hour, as they forage for bugs. They spend most of their waking hours on the wing, more than any other songbirds in the world, and do this just to catch enough flying insects for their survival and that of their young. When they aren’t swooping about, they rest briefly on tree branches or on our roof, the very one we had repaired in December.
When the Swallows returned in April, following our roof repair, they had some construction work of their own as some of their nests were damaged where we replaced guttering. It took the parents about a week to build and restore their nests; working dawn to dusk with only brief rests. Just outside our bedroom window is a cup nest tucked up under the rafters. If I sit quietly, I can watch the Swallows zoom towards it, hover briefly and then shoot off in a new direction. I can only view this nest from an odd angle as I hang out the window, so I am left to guessing the number of young living in it. What I can see are thousands of small mud pellets used in its construction. As Roger and I move onto the next round of projects, we may wish to observe how Swallows accomplish so much in the course of a day. Whatever their secret, I draw the line at living off of bugs.
There is something comforting in the knowledge that each summer we can expect the Swallows’ return to Crockern. And while they are here and I enjoy their beauty, their intrigue, and their bug-eating enthusiasm, I must also make a note — before they flock and begin their epic migratory journey away, crossing Europe, the Mediterranean, deserts and the equator — to locate some bells to ring in their return next year.
“When the Swallows come back to Capistrano
That’s the day you promised to come back to me.
When you whispered ‘Farewell’ in Capistrano
‘twas the day the Swallows flew out to sea.”