Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Summer of the Swallows

Two summer's ago my horses were at a yard where swallows nested in the stables. I've written before about these amazing acrobats of the air and I will always have a soft spot for them- my husband says he knows I'll be properly home when the place we live in has swallows, owls, deer and hares all in one place, and of course the ponies in a field behind the house.

I had noticed the old nests when we joined the yard the previous November and hoped the swallows would return to them when the weather warmed. Sure enough, as summer got underway, one afternoon I saw a handful of swallows skimming low across the fields hunting bugs, and not long after that they began zooming in and out of the stables inspecting the old nests and building new ones, just as they had at our farm when I was a child. It brought back some very strong memories which had lain more or less still in the intervening twenty-odd years.

We watched with bated breath for signs of babies in the four nests they were using. The first three produced offspring with smooth competence and got them fledged with no problems. The last nest did not fare so well. It was very upsetting to arrive at the yard one morning and find two babies dead on the concrete floor beneath the nest. We put some hay down just in case and the next day there was another baby on the floor, alive, but calling frantically for his parents. Reluctant to interfere I went out for a ride, resolving I would act if nothing had changed when I got back.

Two hours later and the baby was still there. I watched from a quiet distance as the parents went in and out, feeding the others in the nest but never going near the one on the floor. The similarities with Twin, the baby swallow I raised when I was a child. stirred all kinds of feelings. I knew the baby wouldn't last much longer without food and as I've never been one to walk past, after making absolutely sure his parents weren't feeding him, I picked him up, put him in a feed bucket and took him home with me. 

I got him feeding from a dropper (rehydration liquid, the tip I learned with Apple, our baby blackbird, earlier that spring). Later that day I went to collect L from school and then on to evening stables satisfied that he was at least feeding and so out of immediate danger.

While at the yard I thought I'd just check the stable floor again and what did I find but a second infant on the floor, calling for his parents who again were only feeding the others in the nest. Again reluctant to jump in too soon, I brought my horses in from the fields, fed them, groomed them, cuddled them. then walked them slowly back to the field, checked the water tank, the fence line, generally prolonging home time as long as I could to give the parents a chance but it wasn't happening, so we picked the baby up and L held him in his hands while we drove home.

So now we had two baby swallows sitting on a blanket inside in a horse's feed bucket in our bedroom. I thought I'd better phone M to let him know our bedroom had once again been taken over by baby birds before he came back from work and discovered them. He laughed and said he'd been expecting it ever since Apple left earlier in the year.

Raising a baby bird is not something to be done lightly. During daylight you have to feed every 30mins for a brand new hatchling, stretching to two hours for older chicks. Different birds have different feeding requirements. Apple was raised on soaked mealworms then live maggots, the swallows needed a mixture of insects and fruit, all cut up small enough to stop them choking. Water was given in a tiny dropper, but you have to be extremely careful not to squeeze it into their lungs (the holes are very close together in a bird's mouth). New hatchlings need a heat pad under them while feathered babies generally don't. Blackbirds learn to feed by pecking at the floor, swallows do it on the wing and that's much harder to teach. Pigeon babies have to be syringe-fed. You need to know what you're getting into before you intervene, and be certain you can cope when you do.

I was given a top tip by Jill, who runs our local animal rescue centre, when we rescued a baby sparrow the summer before- only feed them till dusk, then put them somewhere darkish and don't feed again until morning. It's what their mums and dads do and it give's you a night's sleep too, because raising hatchlings and fledglings is demanding and non-stop for several weeks. 
On their first night with us I therefore put the babies in our spare room (now free from ducklings) and stood in the door to watch them for a few minutes.

They had their feathers and each other to keep them warm, so I figured they would be ok in their feed bucket without a heat pad, but watching their behaviour and the way they huddled together I realised it was too big a space for them- they were used to the security of the nest and presumably felt vulnerable without it. I found a small whicker basket, lined it with tissues and put them in. They seemed happier.

You can see from the pic how young they were and to be honest I didn't hold out much hope that they would survive. I didn't know how long they'd been on the stable floor without food and whether they'd suffered any internal injuries in the fall. They were feeding but they were also very weak and listless and had had a huge shock. I didn't know whether they would be there in the morning and in fact one (the one at the front in the photo) died in the night. With one sibling gone I'm afraid it wasn't long before the other baby also passed away and I was left feeling a hopeless and that I'd failed them. M, a farmer's son, was pragmatic: "You gave them a chance: without you they would have died on the stable floor anyway."

A couple more days passed and no more babies fell from the nest. I began to feel hopeful that they were past the danger stage and would fledge safely, but then the next day I discovered three on the floor; one was dead, the other two alive. The nest was empty. 
In despair I watched for the parents but because there were no more babies in the nest they weren't even coming in to the stable anymore, let alone attempting to feed the chicks on the ground. What was worse was that, far from trying to get away from me when I went in to check them, the two remaining chicks began to call to me and try to move towards me when they saw me.


I picked them up and took them home.

These two were that little bit older than the others had been, they'd had a couple of extra days in the nest with their parent's feeding them so I was more hopeful of a success story, although as time went on it became apparent that the baby on the right hand side of the photo was not strong. 

I tried putting them in Apple's cage (vacated now she was a grown up girl out in the garden) for the night where I thought they would be safe but they hated it. Apple was fine in there until she was ready to fledge outside, but Swallows are not cage birds. They need wide open spaces and the freedom to fly wild and free - these babies taught me that that impulse is there right from the start of their lives. 
They exhausted themselves trying to find a way out between the bars of the cage and I was terrified that they would get a wing stuck, so we settled on the basket above- they perched on edge and went to sleep quite happy.

They were both feeding ok that first day and both survived the night, but on the second day the weaker baby became weaker still and in the night he died. 

Without his sibling the remaining swallow bonded very strongly with me. He would not leave me. If I put him in his basket he would crawl and flutter back to me and would only settle if he was in my hand or on my shoulder. He began to chirp when he saw me and once or twice produced that beautiful liquid song of a swallow on the wing. He would hop and fly around our bedroom so that when I came in it would take a few seconds to locate him: on the books, on the pillow, on the window sill looking out, one time sitting on my hairbrush, which must have been rather uncomfortable.

Night time was a problem- he became very distressed if I tried to put him in his basket and would fly and crawl until he was close to me. It gave me a moment's clarity on events that had happened so long ago I'd just grown up with the memory but not understood it- this impulse to be close to another living thing must have been why all my memories of Twin (the swallow I raised when I was nine) were of him riding everywhere on my shoulders. It was quite a goose-bumpy moment, the years peeled away.

The children loved having him in the house and helped feed him. He would sit on their knees when they came back from school and chirrup, opening his beak for food, and then, when he'd eaten enough, crawl up them and fall asleep beneath their chins. Once again I realised how blessed we were having such close contact with such a wonderful wild creature.

It is impossible not to fall for animals when you have the care of them. Impossible not to hope that against the odds they will survive, as Apple did, even when you know it is more likely that they won't. Impossible too not to mourn them when they go.

This little one lasted four days and seemed to be getting stronger and stronger. We were all hopeful, starting to believe that we'd got through the danger zone. I was very sad when I discovered he'd died in the night. Swallows are such sociable birds; they're born squashed together in a nest, they're raised pressed happily against their siblings, they hunt together, and in September they mass on wires and barn rooves together before flying to Africa. I think my babies all died of loneliness ultimately. The last remaining swallow didn't want to sleep alone in his basket- he wanted to curl up next to me, and if he'd been able to do that I don't think he would have died.

All of this I suppose begs the question would I do it again? And the answer of course is yes, a thousand time and resoundingly, because there is always the chance that it will work and you will save a life, and even if it doesn't, as M said, you have to try don't you?

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Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x