When my wife, Woody and I bought our farm, we didn’t really grasp the relationships with nature that we would develop or the increased respect for the natural processes that would help us establish a more meaningful understanding and appreciation for the philosophy that man is more likely to thrive when cooperating with the natural world than fighting it or attempting to dominate it.
The first spring following the acquisition of our little farm we noticed a few bird nests being constructed under the front porch and under the roof overhang. They appeared to be made using mud and straw…pieces of twigs and other salvaged materials. The nests looked crude and unsightly but after we figured out what they were we decided to live and let live…to not interfere. Great fortune has been our reward in the form of entertainment and pest control. Our new found friends, we determined were barn swallows.
That original four or five nests of barn swallows is now more than thirty. Barn swallows return each year to the same bird community from which they migrate south in late summer. They travel as far as central America for the winter but they return to the place they were born early each spring. This means that, barring no disasters the barn swallow population increases in numbers as the offspring mature and begin families of their own. Our most noticeable spike in swallow population on our farm happened after we built our largest shelter…what is now our main barn. It has a very high overhead and plenty of choice nest building sites and this year…the third year of its existence the barn has about twenty five nests under its roof. It may be that part of the appeal of this barn is the reflective insulation we installed under the metal roof. Their original nesting areas were caves so the reduced heat radiating from the metal roof may be attractive to these little birds.
And small they are. Barn swallows are about 6 to 7.5 inches long and weigh only slightly more than half an ounce. Their aerial acrobatics are entertaining but the satisfaction of knowing that they are snagging bugs out of mid air and that one of their favorite bugs is flies gives a warm and fuzzy feeling that a farmer can easily identify with. Flies are the eternal enemy of everyone who keeps livestock.
We watched as nests were built and eggs hatched…about two weeks for the hatching…little bobbing mouths vying for the next bug mash delivery by one of the adults. Barn swallow parents sometimes get help from other birds to both help build nests and feed their young…either their older offspring or other community volunteers. Soon the mouths had bodies…three to five little baby birds to a nest. The babies always hang their butts over the sides of the nests to poop. This keeps the nests clean but I have to cover whatever is under each nest for about three weeks…until the babies leave the nests. The rewards for providing barn swallow approved nesting areas for these birds is well worth this small inconvenience.
We also found out this year that some of these birds will raise a second family if the circumstances will support it. Evidently the conditions were really good for second family efforts this year because we had quite a few nests that were used a second time. Our local population has exploded! I was out in one of the pastures this week…mid September and many of the swallows had come out of the trees they have been using for roosting and were lined up and down the fences…there may have been 150 or more birds. They were flying, eating and landing back on the fence. When they all decided to fly at the same time the effect was a little overwhelming in the sense that the number of these little birds has grown exponentially and we have been privileged to have been a part of providing a welcoming environment for one of nature’s best means of bug control.
The fly population at our main barn has been solely managed by accommodating our friends, the barn swallows. This is incredibly fortunate for several reasons but perhaps the greatest satisfaction is of gaining a partnership with these entertaining little birds which we feel moves us a step closer to an earth friendly, sustainable lifestyle.