Swallows, a Hopeful Return

Across the globe as we collectively weather the COVID-19 pandemic, we are hunkering down at Crockern.  As such, I’ve had plenty of time for thinking.  Thinking of science and epidemiology.  Thinking about governmental policy.  Thinking of how others are coping.  And more immediately, I’m thinking of writing, cooking, walking the dogs, playing the piano, gardening, reading books and addressing the bounty of projects here at Crockern.    All that thinking leaves me with one certainty:  If ever there was a time to contemplate nature, it is now.

After nearly six months of relentless rain and strong winds, we finally have a reprieve.   It is blissfully sunny and the land seems to roll for miles under a gleaming blue canopy.  The green and gold of the hills are dotted with sheep.  Our night sky is luminous with an abundance of stars.   My morning dawn walk with Millie and Brock is typical for this time of year:  crisp air and a light layer of frost upon the ground.  The bird song is triumphant.

It’s important to anchor myself with these observations.  As I look at my calendar, I’m reminded that only a few months ago the political caucuses in the USA began and Brexit preparations continued to fill the news.  Nearer still, during the last two weeks of February Roger and I had the good fortune to be in Zambia on a safari.  Over the past few weeks, all of our lives have transformed into something different and what was once normal – kids in school, adults in work, and Roger and I moving about freely – now seems a long time ago.  It’s hard to imagine how much our lives will be reshaped by this pandemic.

And yet, somethings remain unchanged.   With spring upon us, the pied wagtails are busy building their nests in various nooks and crannies in the stone walls.  The daffodil bulbs are all happily blooming across the garden.  The green woodpecker continues to mock me with its laughter call as I daily set about filling potholes.  Our duck couple come and go to the pond, sparking our hopes they will have a brood of chicks swimming on the water soon.  Roger is repairing fencing in order that we can protect the 120 trees we need to plant from sheep, who will destroy young saplings in a single grazing session.  These are the very trees we had hoped to put into the ground over six weeks ago, when nothing but wind and rain confounded our efforts, and the news of COVID-19 seemed somehow distant.

When we were in Africa in February, we saw over 90 types of birds and I have no idea how many different types of butterflies.  Herds of Puku, Impala, Zebras and Elephants appeared around bends in the dirt road.  There were Hippos, Baboons, Hyenas, Giraffes, Buffalo, Kudu and Wild Painted Dogs.  We even saw a lion hiding in the bushes after dragging her kill to a more remote location.  At night, the calypso chorus of frogs would sing us to sleep.  Before drifting off, I might startle if I heard calls of baboons, warning of a predator nearby.   But seeing the familiar swallow, the very ones who migrate from Africa to Europe provided me a connection to my daily wildlife discoveries between Crockern and the remarkable gifts of Zambia.

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“Are you going to come visit us this spring?” I would ask when we saw the different swallows in South Luangwa National Park.  “I certainly hope so, and if not you, perhaps some of your friends?”

In the last several years, our swallow population at Crockern has dropped dramatically, and without any explanation.  Did they get lost on route, or blown off their migratory course with strong winds?   I’m anxiously awaiting their return.

Swallows make the spring.  Their aerial gymnastic arrival, eating insects on the wing and diving in and out of our outbuildings, is right up there with the start of baseball season or BBQs with friends.   They build their mud nests, have 2-3 broods, eat loads of bugs and sing their happy chatter song throughout the long summer days.  By September, they show their restlessness, fluttering about on the barn roof, and prepare to migrate back to Africa.  Their return journey takes about six weeks.  Swallows from different parts of Europe fly to different destinations, but according to the  RSPB, our visitors to England end up in the very southern parts of Africa, traveling down through western France and eastern Spain into Morocco, crossing the Sahara Desert and the Congo rainforest, before finally reaching as far south as South Africa and Namibia.

For the past few years, it has been difficult to trust their arrival.   Our first year at Crockern, we counted over 30 active nests around the property.  Last year, we counted a mere six.   Such a decline in a single decade.

Lots of theories abound as to why this might be.  Changes in agricultural practices throughout the globe, where pesticides and insecticides eliminate their main source of food:  insects.  The gradual disappearance of grasslands, hedgerows and wild spaces also changing the insect populations.  Climate change and crazy weather with its accompanying drought, extreme temperatures and weather events may have a hand in their decline.

It’s almost April and we’re bunkering due to a global pandemic.  Despite this madness, the leaf buds will soon unfurl with new foliage.  By May I’ll have the veg beds mostly sorted.  And hopefully in the next few weeks, we’ll catch glimpses of the long tail of a small bird diving, swooping and zigzagging flight patterns overhead.   There is something comforting in the knowledge that the Swallows are due to return.  A nod towards normal.   After a long six months since they left, we’ll welcome their return as they hawk for insects and delight us with our imagined stories of their travels from Africa to Crockern.

Stanley Comes to Visit

Early one morning, I walked into one of the sheds and there he was, sitting on the ground. His small dark eyes glancing up at me as he turned his head to assess danger. Unlike other birds that quickly fly away, this one remained quietly on the ground before giving a little shake of his feathers as if to settle into position. I passed gently, carrying on with my morning routine and trying not to startle the bird. Of course, my faithful hound and shadow Sam was not far behind me and as he came trotting into the shed, there was a quick flapping of feathers and the pigeon was soon perched on high. Sam, who could not care less about birds, remained oblivious.

Why did this pigeon appear in our shed in the first place? We don’t see many pigeons at Crockern, and certainly if we do, they don’t hang out in our shed. Was he blown off course?   Dehydrated? Injured? Sick? Roger and I opted to provide some bird food and a deep bowl of water on the ledge where he was perched. I left the shed, returning at regular intervals to monitor his progress.

With each visit to the shed that first day, I thought I would either find a dead bird, or one who had taken some rest and carried on with his trip. Instead, I was met with blinking bright eyes, which observed me with care before turning to eat, drink, and rest some more. This bird is healthy and unusually tame, clearly used to people. We have not wanted to cause any stress, so have not approached too closely, but a look at his legs reveals both have been ringed. We think he must be part of a racing club.

By the second day of his visit, the little guy was taking short flights to the top of the barn, then the top of the house, and into one of the Sycamore trees before returning to the shed. It was watching one of his flights that we realized why he was hanging out at Crockern. He’s not sick, but instead, missing half of his tail feathers and needed to recover some before flying any distance. To do so, he opted to make a safe haven in our shed. That’s when we decided to name him Stanley.

Racing Pigeon

Racing Pigeon

Once you turn your heart to the well being of another, there are choices to make and questions emerge. How did he loose those tail feathers? Was he shot or did a bird of prey attack him? Either scenario, Stanley managed his escape. Will those tail feathers grow back? When our chickens molt and loose tail feathers, they grow back in time. Provided there is no damage to the follicles, those feathers should grow back.

Each day we freshen his water, provide more bird food, and check to make certain he is okay. We watch him fly to higher and further points before gliding back after a few hours to his safe perch in the shed. We’ve introduced him to our friends and neighbours. We talk to him each day and encourage him to grow tail feathers and return home, or make a new home here. His choice.

Does he understand? Do birds make choices? I haven’t a clue, but I rather like the idea that Stanley is considering his options while he convalesces.

Visiting racing pigeon web sites, we learn more about these lovely creatures. There are blogs, tweets, and detailed information sheets on the care, feeding and handling of the birds. There are photo galleries, awards, and upcoming meetings! It is, in fact, a whole new world of which I knew little until Stanley flew into our shed and prompted our curiosity. On every pigeon racing website there is a section addressing what to do if you find a lost pigeon. I read with interest and then stumbled upon the following: “Before we can notify the owner, the pigeon must be contained and held for collection.”

Catch the bird? Read and report its ring tags? Put Stanley into a box and keep him there? These all seem like good citizen things to do yet, I can’t help but think Stanley’s racing days are over, and thus his value to his owner. Some wildlife pages caution reporting injured racing pigeons, as they are likely to be dispatched. Others assure there is a kind and worried owner waiting for their bird to return. How are we to know? Like Elsa in Born Free, hasn’t Stanley had a taste of something bigger (our shed) than his cage? Could he manage to live a life in the wild? Or, in our shed? Roger and I have moved house before, is it okay to let Stanley do a similar thing? Or, are we obligated to contact an unknown owner? What will happen to Stanley if we do? What’s his fate if we don’t?

By day three and then day four, Stanley’s flights were getting longer and more acrobatic. He’d circle the valley, visiting the colony of herons roosting in the stand of pines across the river. Our racing fly-boy would swoop and dive and soar out of sight only to return to the shed a few hours later. We suspected he was readying himself for a return to his home.

I know he’s a pigeon and many might say, “Hey he’s just a pigeon, what’s the big deal?” But somehow, Stanley found his way into our shed and thus our hearts. We feel responsible. For the time he may be with us, we will keep an eye on him; provide food, water and shelter. When Stanley is ready to make a choice, he’ll do what he needs to do to return to a life he wants. Staying here as a formerly “domestic” bird may put him at risk from any of our local birds of prey. But, flying back to a racing life may do the same.

At the start of each day, we find him in the shed and say, “Good morning Stanley.” At night we wish him, “Sweet dreams old fellow.” Yesterday, after he picked at seed in the grass and took a little dust bath, he took to the skies once more and we watched him fly expertly at top speed above the treetops. This morning, the shed was empty, Stanley had made his choice.