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Mike Jacobs: Fledgling swallows signal summer’s end

Barn swallows nest throughout North America, in every state and every Canadian province.

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Barn swallow. (Illustration/ Mike Jacobs)

The summer cannot pass without an homage to the barn swallow. No bird is more emblematic of the season than this one. A family of swallows proved that for us on Sunday of Labor Day weekend.

Suezette and I hosted the family for a picnic on our driveway. The swallows provided the entertainment. For Suezette and me, this was a special occasion involving a great deal of preparation. Usually, we cook modestly for two people, but this time we were preparing to cook elaborately for eight.

We were conscious of the swallows as we dragged tables and chairs into place, raided the garden for fresh vegetables and fired up the grill. It wasn’t until dinner time that we gave much attention to the swallows. Four young were perched on the edge of the nest that’s tucked under the eave above the door of the garage. Their grip seemed tentative, and they appeared to tip forward slightly. The reason soon became apparent. An adult swallow was perched nearby at the uttermost end of a tree limb, flapping its wings and chirping vigorously. This, we suddenly understood, was a flight lesson. The young birds accepted the challenge one by one, with the fourth and last lingering a while before gliding away.

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Although the birds achieved flight, they did not immediately abandon the nest. The birds were back in the nest when I finished cleaning up after our picnic. Our boisterous family gathering apparently didn’t disturb them.
Of course, barn swallows have a long and intimate association with humans. They’ve been residents of barnyards ever since there were barns. Barn swallows nest throughout North America, in every state and every Canadian province. Closely related birds – actually several subspecies – occur throughout Eurasia, and closely related species live in Africa.

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Barn swallows are long distance migrants that winter from central Mexico as far south as Argentina. Migration is spread throughout late summer, with some birds leaving as early as July and others lingering well into September. This week’s birds struck me as unusually late to fledge. They were the parent birds’ second brood.

Migration looms for these swallows. Barn swallows typically gather in large flocks before migration. These can include other swallow species – in our area cliff and bank swallows – both of which are as common as barn swallows but not as conspicuous. Each of these three species is aptly named; barn swallows do nest in barns, bank swallows in tunnels in stream banks and cliff swallows on vertical services, including farm outbuildings. They also like bridges as nesting sites.

Among the swallows, the barn swallow holds pride of place in human lore. My father, the son of immigrants, had a trove of stories about swallows, each of them laudatory. Swallows bring good luck, he said. He warned us against harming the swallows in any way. Harm to them might bring harm to the dairy cows.

In the American Ornithological Society’s monogram on the species, Charles and Mary Bomberger Brown retell the story that barn swallows consoled Jesus at his crucifixion, an idea that probably insured the swallow’s success across Europe. Another tale from the same source is that the swallow’s tail became forked “when a wrathful deity hurled a firebrand at it.”

The forked tail is an obvious field mark, useful in telling the barn swallow from its relatives. For the birds, it has a more important function. “Tail length and degree of asymmetry in the outer tail-streamers have been found to be reliable predictors of individual quality in both males and females and individuals use these characteristics to select mates.

“Tail length tends to correlate with reproductive success, annual survival, propensity to engage in extra-pair copulation, ability to withstand parasites, immunocompetence, and other measures of fitness.”

Don’t jump to any conclusions about the swallow in your backyard, though. The Browns caution “most of the research on sexual selection has been done on European populations, and relatively few similar studies have been done on the North American barn swallow.”

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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Mike Jacobs

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