Clellie Lynch: Fair weather friends always on the move

EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — One clear, cool morning, Danny and I take a walk around Ooms Pond (aka Sutherland Pond) in Old Chatham, a regular spring observation area. August is looming and the grassy fields are high, stalks entangled with colorful, blossoming weeds: white twirls of fleabane, stands of podded milkweed, goldenrod with hints of the golden arcs to come, purple crown vetch crawling in and around any nearby stem or bush.

Singing song sparrows greet us as we head up the gentle slope. A bebop of bobolinks in varying shades of brown fly up, travel a wee distance and then one after another perch on stalks all the while chirping. No complicated songs at this time of year. Some are stripy brown, one or two are mitred males, plumage still black and creamy, others are in combination, males losing that breeding plumage. Kingbird families insect from the willow trees along the edge. A green heron flies from one shore to another.

Then, we are surrounded by many slender, slender, sleek birds slicing through the sky, near us, above us, weaving through the trees and over the pond. Swallows! the swallows are flocking and feeding, feeding and flocking, flashing blueblack as they zoom by. Wait, many are brown, the young are on the wing. Tree swallows everywhere. Danny points out a barn swallow. I find another. These are the first birds amassing for that journey south.

Never at rest

First one lands on a dead branch, then another, then another. The dead tree at the pond's edge is so dotted with swallows, it could be a minimalist's Christmas tree. This annual gathering of avians has been noticed and written about since man fashioned a quill pen. Even before. The Mohegan word for swallow is pons-pau-cloo-moose, meaning "bird that never rests." And they don't, though during late August and September you may study individual birds as they are rest in huge lines on the electric wires or dust bath en masse on a dirt road.

Swallows are found on all continents save Antarctica; there are 85 species in the Family Hirundinidae. In our area five species are easily found. Some such as the bank and cliff swallow nest in colonies: others, nest individually, the rough-winged. Most noticeable for us are the tree swallows that inhabit the bluebird boxes near houses, and the barn swallows, that squat in any accessible outbuilding.

We do not ascribe to the age-old practice in Europe and Asia of having the swallows nest in the house, sometimes revered, as it Greece. The Ancient Greeks believed that if the gods allowed swallows to fly freely in their temples, they would give them house room too. Pythagoras, as in theorem, though, wrote, `Chelidona oikia m dechou' which translates `Do not receive a swallow into your house.' He associated the swallow in the house as a portent of death. For every belief there is an equal and opposite belief.

The Roman naturalist, Guillim, wrote of that the "swallow resembled `fained and temporizing friends who will fraternize gladly in the Spring of Honors and the Summer of Abundance but will desert those who experience the Winter of Adversity." This must be one of the first descriptions of a fair weather friend!

What swallows were, were noticeable, swooping about a city nesting in and around humans. Pliny noted that swallows were the only carnivorous birds that did not have hooked talons. In the Middle Ages, farmers and fishermen, peasants and royalty studied nature. Scholars looked for explanations; peasants looked for ominous predictability. They all observed that in spring they arrived en masse; in fall, they departed en masse. To where was anyone's guess and guess they did.

In the 1500s not only did the Swedish archbishop, Olaus Magnus write that swallows disappeared into the mud under the sea for the winter, but he also illustrated his thesis with a woodblock of fisherman on ice cleats (!) pulling in a net with both fish and swallows scooped up in it. The idea that winter river beds and lake bottoms were rife with torpid swallows became widespread and was passed along among scientist and scholars for many years. In England, Dr. Samuel Johnson claimed, a bit later, that they all went to the moon for the winter, though he was alone in this belief. Maybe he did observe, as one can do, birds as they migrated across a full moon.

Subsequently, ornithologists and scholars continued the debate about where birds went come winter. It was logical and observable that they had no food to eat, that insects no longer filled the fields and forests, but why wouldn't they hibernate like mammals? Birds, be it swallows, geese or hoopoe, arrived, spent the summer and then, disappeared. Few people traveled more than a few miles from home. But, when the era of exploration began, new and some of the same species were observed at different times of year in different areas.

Historians, ornithologists, scientists, scholars and even the novelist Daniel Defoe put in their two shillings, some leaning towards hibernation, others towards migration. In "The Wisdom of Birds," Tim Birkhead charts the history of this debate, with the belief in migration becoming prominent around the early 1800s, the tipping of the scale coming after Gilbert White wrote his best-selling book, "Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne."

Watch migration

Now not only are we firm in our belief in migration, its causes and effects, you can watch it happen by going online to All daily, barn swallow e-bird entries have been programmed to create a map of North and South America illustrating the bird's annual migration. You can see the swallows quickly move north from Argentina and other parts of South and Central America to the United States and Canada and then fly back.

A sparrow hawk circles above. A great blue lifts off from the pond's edge. Near the boardwalk, I am distracted by a very bright, pink flower identified later: a swamp milkweed. As we finish circling Ooms Pond, we estimate the count of the here/now swallows zipping, swooping, gliding about. Maybe 800 or so. Always a wonderful sight to behold at a great birding place!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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