When I was a young lad, my family lived in a couple of nailed-together shacks in rural British Columbia. To say it was rustic would be giving the wrong impression. “Farmhouse chic” it was not. “Late 70s Broke” was more the vibe. Ah, the things you settle for in an age of stagflation.
The house, aside from a host of negative adjectives, was nothing much to remark on. However it was perched at a high point in the rolling hills with an expansive view of Ootsa Lake and the rise into the mountains of Tweedsmuir Park in the distance. As a youngster, 160 acres seemed a veritable kingdom of things to do. Especially when there were old sheds and junk piles, a rusted out electric company shop truck, seasonal streams, and forests and berry patches to explore.
When we moved into the house, we joined all manner of birds and wildlife that had been making the vacated farm their home. Not all species were welcome. This included the barn swallows who persisted in making their nests of mud and straw under the eaves. The swallows were covered in lice that would make their way into the house and burrow into our skin while we slept. Okay, so maybe I made up the last bit to fill in the knowledge gaps for my seven year-old self, but in short we considered these birds a filthy hazard to our health.
The barn swallows were the only creatures not on the “forbidden” list for target practice with my BB gun. Yes, modern parents, feel free to shudder. As Ralphie’s mom in the old film favourite A Christmas Story would say: “You’ll shoot your eye out!” Thankfully, between my bad aim, poor or perhaps deliberate engineering flaws in the gun, and the agility and intelligence of the swallows, I only succeeded in bringing two of them to the ground.
Their nests were an easier mark. With a long stick I knocked the nests off the house from under the eaves. They fell with a crash, shattering weeks of work, daub by daub, along with tiny speckled eggs and scarcely feathered nestlings who lay helpless on the ground as their parents circled and chirped their warning cries.
Of course I later learned that the health risks from these sweet birds were actually negligible, and they were performing an amazing service to us in keeping the mosquito and blackfly populations at a dull roar. And now more than ever I appreciate the rich life that each of these birds has, and the marvellous feats they perform in persisting – both as individuals and as a species in decline by 7% each year.
The old house and all the sheds and barn are gone now, and so too the joyous flocks of swallows that marked the return of spring and blue sky, grasshopper days of summer soon to come.
Much of life demands a “do over”. If I could go back I would hand the BB gun back and ask for a child-sized set of binoculars. I would breathe life back into all of the fallen, and protect their nests so they could save their energy in the spring for raising their demanding, gape-mouthed teenage flocks.
This spring I was working in the garage and a pair of barn swallows swooped in to scout good platforms for their nest. They chose an electrical box above the garage light, but neglected to consider that they could not open the heavy garage door on their own. I gently persuaded them out and wished them well on their house hunt (especially in this neighbourhood, in this market!).
Eventually they chose a spot that wasn’t great. The ledge was very sloped but at least one of the couple was convinced that it would do, and the other went along (insert your gender / relationship stereotypes here). They came back and forth, attempting to stick mud daubs to the smooth surface and finally, with some engineering, managed to adhere a perfect little cup nest to the vent of our range hood. Fried foods aren’t healthy anyways, we told ourselves, so we won’t disturb them.
We moved our deck chairs to the side of their flight path and delight in watching their acrobatics and cooperation as they do home improvements. They search for just the right feathers which they sometimes drop (play? accident?) and swoop to catch as they drift toward the ground. At the nest they stomp the feathers in and then wiggle their butts down to mold them to the perfect shape.
As they sing their distinct happy swallow songs, we hope that their little nest has a clutch of small speckled eggs that can grow into a new set of cobalt blue and rust red marvels, darting through the air with tight wings and forked tails. We’ll welcome them back in spring from their ten thousand mile journey. They can refurbish their little nest, and we’ll make some room for their family and friends with some pre-made nest cups around the property.
We can’t go back, but we can go forward – better.