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Printed September 3, 2019

Barn Swallows: The miracle of a baby bird’s first flight

By Janice Edwards/ The Bulletin

Each spring, our local Barn Swallows quietly go about collecting mud, straw, and down to build nests under our house. Roy and I have retired from city life to a cabin located in a major bird migration flyway on the San Bernard River.

We really like the Barn Swallows because they eat a lot of bugs and – for being wild birds – they are pretty tame. One returning momma bird let us stroke her head while she was sitting on her eggs. I got a step stool out one year and showed my 8-year-old awe-struck neighbor that he could gently pet the heads of the baby birds in the nest. The next day, they fledged and flew away.

We’ve watched the same family of birds return each year and raise one, two and sometimes three clutches of babies. The Barn Swallows are very family oriented. When they return each year, the parent birds bring along their adult children. They all help in building the nest, take turns sitting on the eggs, and – once the new babies hatch – take turns feeding the crew. This way, they successfully raise multiple sets of babies. What I find so interesting is, once the first babies fledge out, they stick around to help raise the next hatchlings.

Around August, the last clutch of Barn Swallows has usually fledged. I guess they leave around August to escape the heat and hurricanes of the summers in Texas. But they have raised their families, entertained their landlords and moved on. This year was a good year for Barn Swallows – they raised three sets of babies – five in the first nest, one in the second nest, and four in the last nest. In this family setting, saying that the “kids” grow up too fast has real meaning. I always mean to take pictures of them in the nest when they are tiny, or when they are being fed, but I never seem to have my camera in my hand when I need it. The next thing I know, they have grown up. and another opportunity has been lost.

As summer progressed, I noted the babies hatching and leaving, and as August arrived, I realized that the last babies were getting ready to find their place in the world. So one day, after I had taken a Coke down to Roy while he was mowing the lawn, I walked by the nest to see how the babies were doing. They were all feathered out, and all four of them were sitting on the edge of the nest boxes.

I had never seen them on the edge of the boxes before and thought that this line-up would make a good picture. Then, to my utter delight, one of life’s wonderful little dramas began to unfold before my eyes.

The babies were now lined up (from left to right) with the first and fourth babies on the edge of the boxes and the second and third babies with their tails up against the wall. I stood back as an adult Barn Swallow whizzed by my head – it was feeding time. The adult bird flew in and gave baby number one a bug meal. As soon as he scarfed down the bug, the adult flew, and baby No. 1 followed. He FLEW – just a short distance to the wood rack – but, he flew. As baby No. 1 one sat wide-eyed and chest heaving on the wood rack, an adult bird flew in and gave baby No 4 a bug meal. The two of them flew a short way. Again, baby No. 4 only flew a short distance and perched on the wood rack, amazed at himself.

Then, it clicked. I was witnessing flying lessons! Another adult bird came in and fed baby No. 2 – and they flew off a short distance and landed. Now there was only baby No. 3 left in the nest with his tail against the wall.

Another adult bird flew up, perched on the nest and offered him a nice grasshopper. To my surprise, baby No. 3 – the smallest bird in the clutch – did not step toward the edge of the box, though the adult bird teased and coaxed.

Instead, this baby was acting like a spoiled brat. You could almost hear him proclaiming, “I’m not going to fly, and you can’t make me.” The adult bird again offered the grasshopper to baby No. 3 and chided him for being such a “chicken.” Baby 3’s only response was to huddle even closer to the wall.

Then the adult Barn Swallow ate the grasshopper, and the balance of the birds flew off on a bug-catching seminar.
As the birds flew off in search of the perfect “sky buffet,” I stood there dumb-struck – trying to assimilate what I just watched. How blessed we are, I thought, to witness one of life’s little wonders.

Oh, In case you are wondering, baby No. 3 finally joined the crew before they flew off to another adventure.

(Jan wants to hear from you. Write her in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)