than the trees did.”
”Resurrections” by A.R. Ammons
Each day the sun rises a wee bit earlier chasing away the darkness stolen by daylight saving time. Birds don’t give a hoot about man-made strictures, but follow their instincts and internal clocks. Spring lures them north, in dribs and drabs, in flocks and fleets, sometimes curtailed by fickle Persephone’s weather tricks.
One morning we may be cloaked in a weak but welcome warmth as brilliant sunshine glitters through the budding trees with birds trilling and peepers peeping; the next dawn it’s freezing with grey scudding clouds, frozen puddles, chilly winds lifting and blowing last year’s leaves about and … is that snow again?
But come they do, the birds, seeking the perfect residence for another breeding season. Red-winged blackbirds have arrived, red and yellow epaulets agleam. I haven’t seen any females yet, though expect them any day. Grackles too have descended into our area and just two days ago, completing our blackbird trio, a pair of cowbirds feasted at the feeders.
The feeders are busier than O’Hare Airport. Chickadees, now singing that two-note, spring call, are everywhere, mingling with titmice, nuthatches (both) and a few finches. The suet hosts all three woodpeckers—hairy, downy and red-bellied— and are joined one day by a yellow-bellied sapsucker, the first time one has ever deigned to come to our feeder. How welcome on my morning walk to hear that crazy slow/fast drumming, so jazzy compared to the ever so regular tatatatat of the other woodpeckers.
One very yellow goldfinch appears, only to be gone again the next day. I wonder where its companions are, for most years we have 20 or 30 at this time of year when the goldfinches’ plumage matches the blossoming daffodils. The regular flock of winter turkeys has grown to around 40, bounding down the hill like a noisy, feathered platoon. The phoebe has taken up residence.
For the last week, a solitary tree swallow, a true harbinger of spring, has graced the wire above our small pond. Some mornings the swallow in all its iridescent, dark blue glory is there; some mornings it is about a half mile down the road on the wire near the big pond at Hand Hollow Conservation area. So odd to see just a single one.
Swallows are one of the most observed species of birds since they have always lived in and around people, first co-habitating with cavemen, and then usurping whatever man-made structures are suitable: pagodas and porches, barns and bridges for housing locations.
Tree swallows are particularly enamored of bluebird houses. You should always put up more than one house so the bluebirds and swallows can co-exist. Hummm … maybe even three if you have a pushy Jenny wren in residence.
Over 80 species of swallows exist around the globe. No matter the size or color, they all have a slender, sleek, streamlined body, perfect for flying, and for aerodynamic maneuvering, twisting and turning in a nanosecond to snag an insect on the wing. The word, swallow, comes from the Old English, swealwe, meaning “bird that moves to and fro.” Well, yes.
Different civilizations through the centuries have been drawn to swallows, attributing to them all sorts of mythical powers and strengths that man perhaps should emulate. That they appear one day in spring, and then, in the fall, disappear en masse mystified thinkers around the world. Swallows came to represent the renewal, the resurrection of the natural world.
Theories abounded as to where they went when; suddenly they were gone and six months later suddenly they appeared. A very popular, widely-held belief was that they retreated to the bottom of oceans and lakes, stream and ponds for “underwater hibernation.” In 1703, Charles Morton, an Englishman, proposed that they all went to the moon and even claimed that they flew and slept at the same time for the two months it took to get to the moon. This theory didn’t fly, nor hold water. Eventually by the end of 19th century, ornithologists had a firm grasp on this bird behavior, what we now know as migration.
The earliest written record of a swallow is in “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” where the family afloat with the beasts of the world during the flood send out a dove, a swallow and a raven to look for dry land. When this story was incorporated into the Bible, the swallow was dropped from the land search.
In Hebrew, swallows are called birds of freedom for they seem to own the air. In Rome, they were included among the household gods, the Lares and Penates, and were much revered. In China, the arrival of swallows in spring triggered the request that swallows bless women with children. Canaanites called upon swallows to bless marriages and births. Swallows are holy birds of Islam for they return to Mecca every year.
Early medicos looked to the natural world for cures to various illnesses and maladies. Look at a Materia Medica to learn how to create potions from familiar plants by boiling, pulverizing, steeping in alcohol. But before that, birds, bones and even particular stones were thrown into the mix. Swallows because of their constant chittering and chattering and their ability to maneuver so well were thought to cure epilepsy.
Because tree swallows often live near water and skim the surface for insects, they are known as sentinels of pollution. Like the canaries in a mine detecting gas, the swallows feeding on insects living in and around toxic polluted water, may be studied to determine levels of pollution.
No matter the history, beautiful, sleek swallows swooping over a pond and around your house are a wonderful sight to observe. You may have heard that “One swallow does not make a spring (or some say, summer).” This is from Aristotle and has been altered over the centuries. Aristotle wrote “to be happy takes a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make a spring, nor does one fine day.”
I am perfectly happy with my solitary tree swallow on this fine day. Welcome spring!