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Our Priceless Swallows And Swifts

( Originally Published 1910 )



NED came into my study one summer day, when 1 was trying to write a bird article, just as I made a slap at a tormenting housefly and almost upset my inkstand. "Your intention was good," he remarked, "but you aren't as graceful as the swallows yet in your fly-killing. But how did so many flies get in here?" "Oh, someone left the screen door open," I replied; "that is one reason, and, since you have mentioned swallows, you remind me of another, and that is that we haven't swallows enough to catch all these flies. If they were as common as they used to be, I don't think there would be so many flies to bother us." "Did they use to be very plenty?" inquired Ned. "Yes," I said, "according to all accounts the familiar kinds were quite abundant up to about twenty years ago, when the hateful English Sparrow drove them away by fighting them or taking their nests. I remember well when I was small what lots of swallows there were around Boston, where I lived, far more than there are now. Of course I don't mean to say that there weren't any flies then, but there was a big colony of Barn and Eave Swallows on our next door neighbor's barn, and with such a swarm catching flies all day about our place you couldn't make me believe that there were not less flies than there would have been without them."

"Don't they catch other insects beside flies?" asked Ned, becoming evidently interested. "Yes," I told him, "they are great on mosquitoes and about every sort of small flying insect. The Government ornithologists of the Biological Survey say that in the South swallows feed upon the dreaded boll weevil, and they are getting up a crusade to try to protect the swallows and introduce them to regions from which they have been driven out. One good method is to kill off the English Sparrows around their colonies, and also to put up suitable boxes for the kinds that use them. Of course boys ought not to disturb them, and the owners of barns where they build should welcome them, even though they make some dirt to clean up. They are well worth any trouble they may cause."

After this little talk about swallows, Ned helped me drive out the flies so that there would be none of them on my bird article, and I went to work again in peace. Besides helping me in this swallow-like occupation of chasing flies, Ned promised to go with me that afternoon and help me photograph a nice Barn Swallows' nest with four nearly fledged young, which were now about to leave.

It was a pretty hard proposition, Ned thought, when he saw the nest, on the projecting end of a timber inside a barn, away up under the roof where it was quite dark and almost inaccessible. However, I thought there was a way. We got a long ladder, and I climbed up on a beam which went rather near the nest. I pulled the ladder up after me and placed it across two beams. Then Ned handed me up some boards and I made a little platform on the- ladder to stand the camera and tripod upon. The camera set up on the tripod could now stand close to the nest, but it was too dark even to focus. However, I was ready for that difficulty. I had brought a good-sized mirror, and now I asked Ned to stand just outside the barn door in the strong sun-light and throw up the reflected light upon the nest. It was easy now to focus. Then I held up a smaller mirror which I carried in my pocket and had Ned throw the light on my mirror, and I in turn threw it down into the nest upon the backs of the young birds, and thus I made some successful quite short exposures. Then I brought down a young swallow, posed and photographed it outdoors, put it back into the nest, and the work was done, and well done—thanks to my valuable assistant.

Probably the Barn Swallow is the best known of the six species found in our Northern and Eastern districts —the bird with the forked tail, reddish breast and shiny blue-black upper parts. They build nests of mud and straw on beams inside barns and sheds. The settlement of North America by the white man has changed the habits of many of the birds, notably the swallows, and among them this particular kind. Its original preference was for rocky caves as a nesting site. Just once in my life have I found a nest thus situated. It was in a cave on lonely Seal Island, which lies twenty miles off the rugged coast of Maine, in Penobscot Bay.

Our Barn Swallow is such a happy, friendly bird that nearly everyone who knows it loves and admires it. We enjoy its merry twitterings as it darts about the barn, and are pleased at the grace with which this greyhound of the air doubles and turns. When we go out for a drive, it is a pretty sight to see them circle about us, catching the insects which our advance starts from the grass or weeds along the country roadside.

Perhaps next in familiarity comes the Eave or Cliff Swallow. This is the other kind which frequents the barns. I builds bottle-shaped nests of mud pellets up under the eaves, which are often clustered thickly together and partly built one upon the side of the other. In the primitive days these colonies of nests were built on cliffs, and in some parts of the West they are built there even yet. So the bird is the genuine Cliff Swallow out there, and the Eave Swallow with us. Originally there were no Cliff Swallows where there were no cliffs, but with the country's settlement they spread nearly everywhere, and the dates are on record when they first appeared in various localities. This bird looks quite different from the Barn Swallow, and can be told by its nearly square tail, the pale reddish patch at the base of the bill and on the upper rump, and the light underparts.

I have photographed the nests by putting up a ladder under the eaves, driving my screw bolt into the side of the barn, screwing the small camera to it and making long-timed exposures, since the nests are in the shade. To get the adult birds from life, I await quietly beneath the nests on some low barn, with my reflecting camera in hand, and snap the birds as they fly to their nests. When the young are just beginning to fly they are quite tame and one can often walk up close to them with the camera.

The nests of many swallows get very lousy, like the Phoebes', and it was owing to this that I once had a rather severe punishment for meddling with the Eave Swallows when I was a boy. I wanted some swallows' eggs, and, after climbing up to some nests by means of a ladder, was trying to get my fingers into the narrow entrance of one of them, when down came the nest and smashed all over my bare head. In a moment I was swarming with bird lice from head to foot—and what a time I did have! It was days before I got rid of them all, and I was sore in every member from their bites and my scratching. Fortunately it was vacation time, and I was able to keep aloof from most of mankind.

Then there is the Tree Swallow, the kind with the pure white breast and glossy steel-blue back. How they used to swarm on the marshes and on the telegraph wires, when I was a boy, in August when they were getting ready to migrate ! But now their numbers seem pitifully small in comparison. Originally they nested in cavities of trees. Then, in well settled, localities, they changed to the bird boxes which kindly disposed people put up for them. But the English Sparrow came and drove them out, and now they have gone back to the hollow trees again.

Out in North Dakota, I have seen pairs of them flying in and out of hollows in low trees along the shores of rivers and lakes, and I was wishing that I had taken the time to photograph them. So it was pleasant to me to find a colony of them near my home nesting in stubs in the overflowed woodland where I have told of the woodpeckers nesting so abundantly. Some of the stubs which they had chosen stood out in pretty deep water and the holes were rather high up. I was standing on the "corduroy" roadway across the swamp and wondering how in the world I was going to work it to get some pictures, when I saw a Tree Swallow fly into a hole near the top of a low stub only about five feet from the water, the stub being only a yard out from the road. I waited two weeks or more till the young were hatched, and then with my reflecting camera and a lot of plate holders, I paid a visit to the nest. The male bird sat on a low branch of another stub, quite near the nest hole, and let me walk quietly up and snap him. He flitted to another stub and I got some more pictures of him. Meanwhile the female flew to the nest with a fly, so I sat down on the edge of the roadway partly behind a bush, with the camera on my knees, aimed at the nest. For a few minutes the birds flew about twittering, excited by my presence. But I sat still, and presently the male ventured. I snapped him as he approached the stub, and he flew back without entering. But in a moment he alighted at the entrance with a fly, and, not heeding the sound of the shutter, entered, fed the young, and emerged carrying. a sac of excrement. By this time I had changed the plate and caught him as he left. Then the female came, and they were constantly going and coming, giving me all the snapshots I wanted. Later, when the five young were about ready to leave, I took out two of them and posed them, and then put them carefully back into the hole.

One day I came out from the woods on the adjoining hill, hundreds of feet above this morass, overlooking the whole tract. It was a lovely panorama of high rolling hills, with two lakes nestling in the valley, and, aided by my strong field glass, I actually could see the old woodpecker hole in the swallow stub, and see the swallows enter and leave the cavity as they fed their young.

Still another familiar species is the Bank Swallow, the small brownish fellow that digs out burrows in gravel banks near ponds or streams. They are quite common, and a number of banks or cuts in my neighborhood each boast of a little colony of a dozen or more pairs. The birds arrive toward the end of April, and presently go to work digging their burrows, and then make trips to poultry yards to pick up feathers with which to make soft lining for the nests, that the very fragile pure-white eggs which are to be deposited may not be broken.

One day I visited a colony situated in a gravel cut, just off a main road. The burrows were not deep, and from one of them I took out a parent bird which was incubating, having previously set up my camera focused on a hole, and, placing it at the entrance, secured a snapshot before it escaped. Meanwhile I had allowed the horse to graze by the roadside unhitched, watched over by Ned. Just ahead there was a rise of ground and a turn in the road. I had not thought about the possibility of an automobile coming along, but, as luck would have it, one came just then, going at very moderate speed. Before I could get back the horse broke away from Ned, shied into the fence, and then dashed off with the shafts, leaving the rest of the vehicle hung up. The animal only ran to the next farmyard, where it stopped and was caught. The driver of the machine was a gentleman. He stopped, proffered assistance, gave his number, and so on. Though I was out a buggy, I did not sue him, as he had been so polite, and I was at fault for leaving the horse as I did. But the country roads are very narrow, and these engines put residents and visitors in the country in jeopardy of their lives. It is not only ill-mannered, but lawless and criminal for anyone to invade country roads with an automobile and not drive with the utmost care, stop when he is asked by the driver of a horse, and in every way be considerate, in view of the peril to life and limb which he is creating. Machines are impracticable in the country for at least half the year, and people living there are compelled to keep horses. Were all autoists gentlemen like this one just mentioned, people in the country would not be put to as much inconvenience and danger as at present they suffer, many, especially women and children, being afraid to drive or ride out, and thus are compelled to stay at home.

There is another swallow, similar in appearance and habits to the Bank Swallow, which is not so well known —the Rough-winged Swallow. They, are not often seen north of the Middle States and are common only in the West. At a distance they are distinguishable from the Bank Swallow mainly by being a little larger and having uniformly dark under-parts. Frequently they nest on the timbers under bridges, or in crevices of abutments, although they also nest like the Bank Swallow. Even Audubon did not distinguish them from Bank Swallows until he happened to shoot some specimens. So it will be well to watch for them among the supposed Bank Swallows, and some day we may add this rather rare bird to our list.

Some people call the Tree Swallow the Martin, but the genuine Martin is the Purple Martin, a larger species, the male of which is entirely of a dark glossy steel-blue color, the female duller, and paler below. They are beautiful and useful birds, but unfortunately are very tender, and late cold storms, combined with the attacks of the English Sparrow, have almost exterminated them in the New England States. In populated regions at present they generally breed in bird-boxes which people are glad to prepare for them. Sometimes, after prolonged cold rain storms in June, whole colonies of Martins, old and young alike, have been found dead in their nesting boxes. I never see them now except as migrants. Their original manner of nesting was in hollow trees, like the Tree Swallow. Out in the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota I once found them breeding quite plentifully in the poplar timber, and took a picture of a pair of them as they alighted on the branch of a stub near their nest cavity, an old woodpecker hole.

We have just one more bird to tell of in this chapter, the one that people persist in calling the Chimney Swallow. In general appearance and habits it is swallow-like, but in structure it is quite different, and belongs to the family called Swifts. So let us get used to calling it by its right name, Chimney Swift, and be accurate.

Its feet are so weak and cramped that it does not perch, but clings to a perpendicular surface, such as the inside of a chimney or a hollow tree, propping itself from behind with its peculiar tail, each feather of which ends in a sharp spine or spike. But in flight it is master of the situation, and well deserves its university degree of Swift. Almost ceaselessly, oftentimes by night as well as day, it is awing, tireless in pursuit of flying insects. It has been estimated that each swift flies a thousand miles every day, yet it never seems to weary.

Under primitive conditions, before the settlement of the country, the swift resorted to hollow trees for rest, shelter and nesting. But now it seldom occupies any other retreat than a chimney. In the autumn, when flocking preparatory for its migration south, I have seen assemblages of them at dusk drop into some selected chimney in a steady stream, until thousands must have been clinging to every available inch of brick inside.

They return to us about the last of April, but are late in nesting, for ordinarily the eggs are not laid till July. During June they may be seen darting over the dead tops of trees, hardly pausing an instant in their flight as they grasp and wrench off a twig. Having secured one, the bird takes it down the chimney and sticks it to the brick wall with gummy saliva, which she ejects. This is continued till the curious basket like structure has been completed, and then four or five elongated pure white eggs are laid. Many accidents occur. Rains wash down the nest, or the young fall down into the fireplace or pipe below, where they are likely to be left to starve. The brood of swifts make considerable racket, and the descent of the old birds into the chimney causes a rumbling sound like distant thunder. They drop a good deal of dirt, too, down the chimney. But they amply pay for their misdemeanors in the multitude of flies and mosquitoes which they destroy,

It is a hard matter to photograph a nest, owing to the narrowness of the chimneys. But I was fortunate in happening upon a very peculiar nesting site. A pair of swifts chose to build in a barn. Up near the top of the hayloft, near an open window, for the past three years they have stuck their curious nest to the plain board wall inside. The first year they raised but one youngster and the next season four. The third season they built the nest, but for some reason did not lay the eggs there.

I photographed this nest in the same way that I photographed the young Barn Swallows, with the help of Ned, the ladder and the mirrors. The second year I paid my visit when the young had just crawled from the nest and were clinging to the boards near it like so many bats. One flew off, but I photographed the other three, and then put one back in the nest and took a picture of it there. After that I carried one outdoors in the light and took some pictures showing in detail how they cling and brace themselves with the tail.

A pair of them build every year in one of my chimneys, and this year, for some reason, the eggs did not hatch. Ned wanted to get them as curiosities, so he made a small scoop net at the end of his butterfly net pole and succeeded in landing the nest and two out of four of the eggs;

A well-known naturalist once told me that it seemed to him that the swift in flight used its wings alternately. It would be an interesting bit of sport and scientific research combined to secure a series of flight pictures of the swift and try to find this out. I have thought that sometimes I would squat on the ridge pole by some favorably located chimney to which swifts resorted and see if I could get some pictures. Who else will try it?



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