I’m not a typical birdwatcher, and even though I do have a book showing all of the birds to be found in Northern California, I’m still not very good at matching the birds that I see in my backyard with the pictures in the book. Nevertheless, I do enjoy watching the birds as they go about their business, and try to figure out what they’re up to.
We have created a bird sanctuary in our garden, complete with feeders, water for drinking and bathing, and flowers for the hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. The garden is enclosed with a high fence, and there are lots of little hiding places for the birds to find shelter.
Our friends gave us a funky, handmade birdhouse that we hung on the fence, intending it to be yard art – never thinking that birds would actually use it. One day, in early spring, as we were eating lunch outside in the warm sunshine, we noticed a pair of birds giving the birdhouse a close look. We later discovered that they were tree swallows, and to our surprise and delight, they began to collect materials from our yard, and bringing them into the birdhouse. They were definitely building a nest. It was exciting to see, up close, how busy the male and female were, making continuous trips for nest material.
After a few days of frantic activity, things quieted down considerably, with the female spending time inside the nest, and the male either flying around or sitting on the fence, watching. Eventually, the female left the nest and nothing much happened until one day we heard what sounded like peeping, coming from the nest. Could it be? Pretty soon, the activity level of the birds picked up dramatically, with relay trips to and from the birdhouse. Mom and Dad – by now we were certain that they were parents – made non-stop trips out and back, bringing food to the young’un on a virtual assembly line. After a while, we began to see the little peeper poking its beak out of the opening of the birdhouse.
There were other birds that used our garden as a sanctuary, including finches, crows, ravens and blue jays, the latter that we knew could pose a threat to the youngster, so we kept a close watch on what they were doing. But it turned out not to be necessary, because the parents were on the case. If one of the birds got too close, or looked too interested in the contents of the birdhouse, one of the tree swallows flew at the intruder, no matter its size. After a few strafing attacks, the bird got the message and flew away.
One day, a few weeks later, it looked as though the baby was getting ready to fly the coop, because he kept sticking his head further out the door. Dad was sitting on his favorite perch, a shepherd’s hook that was about five feet from the birdhouse, watching Junior inch his way out. Finally, when Dad thought he had gone too far, he flew down to the birdhouse, sat on the perch and stuck his head into the hole. I can only imagine what he said to Junior, but the little peep apparently got the message – he didn’t stick his head out any more that day.
But it did look like the time to fly was drawing near, because both parents gave chirps of encouragement to the little one, drawing him further out the door. It also appeared as if they stopped feeding him as much, probably wanting the peep to get the idea that the Free Lunch was ended, and it was time for him to feed himself. Then one evening, as we were eating dinner on the patio, the relatives arrived!
About a dozen or more swallows came barreling in, swooping all over the sky, immediately over our yard, flying patterns over the area doing what were definitely “figure eights”. When we described this to our bird savvy friends, they thought that the swallows were only catching insects on the wing, and while this may have been true, they had never done this before, and it didn’t look as if they were chasing anything – they were flying definite patterns. It reminded me of film that I had seen about the Battle of Britain during World War II, and it occurred to me that the swallows were establishing air superiority, just like the RAF fighter planes did over England. By filling the sky with rapidly flying birds, they were preventing any other birds from entering the area. And indeed, we saw no other birds anywhere near!
We also guessed that the first flight of a young bird had to be the most dangerous time of its young life. It needed to do something that it had never done – literally jump out of the nest and start flying – immediately! No practice hops or false starts. Once it was in the air, it either flew or fell. In either case, at this moment, the young bird was at its greatest risk, being either on the ground and relatively helpless, or else flying unsteadily until it got the rhythm. So it made perfect sense to me that the SAF (Swallow Air Force) was indeed clearing the area of all hostiles, to give the youngster a fighting chance.
We were real excited because we felt that we were about to witness a miracle of nature, but despite all of the frantic activity, nothing happened. This went on for a few more days until one morning we went outside and noticed that there was no activity anywhere near the birdhouse. The little guy, and his parents, had taken off when we weren’t watching. And they didn’t even say goodbye or leave a Thank You note.