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A Bird’s View from Winds Way | Barn Swallows

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September 3, 2020

Nancy Gilbert

Summer’s End

When August drew to a close, many of us (but not all!) once again looked forward to September with unabated anticipation – buying new notebooks, sharpening pencils, thinking about trying out for the cheerleading squad or joining the French Club –and pushed aside the reality of the summer reading not yet completed, the miles not yet run, the relatives we neglected to visit. September marked the beginning of something new and exciting. This year is different. But take heart! The natural world is progressing through the seasons much as it always has. The quality of light in our beautiful corner of the world has become more translucent, the cooling nights and late-summer blooms offer respite. Nature holds a depth of meaning and healing. Time spent in nature nourishes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. You need not be a biologist, naturalist, or conservationist to support the stewardship of nature, to care for it as nature cares for us. The best way to begin is by observing.

For me, one signal that the season is changing comes when the fledgling Osprey no longer return to their nest to await a fish drop-off from a parent. They’re on their own getting ready to make their first migratory solo flight. An even stronger indication is when opening the partially closed barn door to retrieve my wheelbarrow and realizing the barn no longer hums with the sound of babies begging to be fed or the call of parents as they dart in and out. The Barn Swallows have left. This year the barn was empty on August 31st.

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I’ve written about Barn Swallows before – about how they send a scout in mid-April to check out their old nesting site and within a week or so bring back several dozen others to start the cycle of rebuilding nests, laying eggs and feeding babies once again. But they are such a graceful, easily recognizable and common bird that they call for more attention. These beautiful songbirds mate for life and return to the same location to nest with unerring regularity. Barn Swallows are the most abundant and widely distributed swallow species in the world, breeding throughout the Northern Hemisphere and spending the winter in much of the Southern Hemisphere.

True to their name, Barn Swallows now nest almost exclusively on man-made structures such as under bridges, on house eaves, or in buildings. There must be at least 20 nests in our barn. Upon arrival, some older nests will be rejected, and the birds busy themselves repairing usable nests and building new ones. This is fascinating! Males and females both participate in constructing the shallow cup of mud pellets and grasses (made by rolling beaks-full of dirt in the bird bath or in a puddle) and lining it with feathers. I’ve always been intrigued by the feathers – where do they find them? We often see chicken and duck feathers on the barn floor (we don’t live far from the last remaining duck farm on the East End, Crescent Duck Farm), and even the occasional owl feather. If an old nest is reused, the old feathers will be discarded. In a nesting colony, birds may steal nest-lining materials from their neighbors.

The female will lay a clutch of 3 to 7 eggs. As you will note from the pictures, it is a puzzle how they all fit into the nest! Usually there will be two broods. Babies remain in the nest for about 20 days (as compared to 15 days for baby Robins). Once they fledge, they will fly next to their parents to learn the art of eating on the wing but continue to be fed by their parents and return to the nest to sleep. A single Barn Swallow can consume up to 60 insects per hour or a whopping 850 per day, so they are a wonderful natural way to control pesky insects like mosquitoes and termites. These birds need large open areas in which to forage and they prefer to have water nearby as they also drink and even bathe on the wing.

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How do you identify a Barn Swallow? You will often see them in groups flying in long swooping arcs over open land or water as they search for food. They are one of the most graceful swallows, with a long forked tail and long pointed wings. Barn Swallows sport a gorgeous steely blue back, wings, and tail with rufous to tawny underparts. Their blue crown and face contrast with their cinnamon-colored forehead and throat. Tree Swallows, also very prevalent in our neck of the woods, are an iridescent deep blue on top with clean white fronts.

I’ve been asked, not infrequently, why we don’t get rid of the nests to deter the birds from returning. The simple answer is that they are a delight to watch and to listen to! It is true that in defending nesting territories, swallows can be known to swoop at your head. And they do make a mess on the barn floor. Nevertheless, I would miss their April return, nest-building, and baby-raising greatly. In the 19th century, swallows were hunted for use in the millinery trade and it was an 1886 article decrying this waste of bird life that led to the founding of the first Audubon Society. What a pleasure it is to be able to provide shelter for these lovely creatures. That’s why, starting in April, we always leave the barn door partly ajar to welcome them home.

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About the Author

Nancy Gilbert is a board member and a conservation easement donor — as well as avid bird enthusiast and master gardener. In December 2001, Nancy and her husband Richard Wines, donated a conservation easement to the Trust on their property, Winds Way, in Jamesport. This easement protects 9.9 acres of agricultural land as well as 1.7 acres of scenic beachfront woodlands and wetlands on Great Peconic Bay. Also protected by the easement are the facades of the historic buildings located within the 3.2-acre development area, including a Greek-Revival residence, an historic barn, and a mid-19th century one-room schoolhouse. You can learn more about Winds Way and its history on their website: windswayfarm.com

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