Editor’s note: My friend Jerry “Jeb” Brown, The Sage of the South, has informed me that I don’t know a purple martin nest from a barn swallow nest. So I have edited this column to reflect his editorial input, and I remain ever grateful to him.
The purple martins and barn swallows arrived last month, and at least a few are pissed off.
Don’t tell me that animals don’t have an emotional life.
I’ve lived in the country for more than 30 years now, which gives me a front-row seat to a natural operetta every day. I find respite in it, unlike the endless psychodrama of our intractable politics, which makes me just want to crawl in a cave and hide.
But with Mother Nature, there’s something always going on, especially with the birds.
Back to the purple martins. My husband put up a house to attract them about four years ago. It attracted many of these winged farmers’ friends, known as aerial insectivores. They are on the decline in North America, but seem to like our farm.
They moved in, set up nests in communal living and devoured their weight in insects every day that would otherwise have munched on the fields of organic vegetables my husband grows.
They were happy. We were happy.
But two years ago, a pair decided that, thank you very much, they preferred to nest inside our barn. They started building a nest on top of an electrical box near the ceiling. Overnight, it seemed, the nest was finished and the female had laid three eggs. We couldn’t interfere then, no matter how inconvenient their choice of habitat. We surrendered.
We put down cardboard to catch the poop and ducked when the birds swooped too low. The babies soon became big and everyone packed up and flew away in mid-August. They had a long migration ahead of them; some fly as far south as the Amazon Basin. I took the nest down. That was that, I thought.
The following spring, the purple martins nested elsewhere, but barn swallows built a nest in the same place. They, too, are insectivores, and like the purple martins (could they be cousins?), they also head for Central and South America in mid-August. I was defeated. So last year, after they vacated their mud-and-sticks home, I just left the nest where it was.
But apparently, that’s not what the barn swallows wanted. This year they refuse to reuse what looks like a perfectly good nest to me. Instead they yell at me, chit-chit-chitting at me as they swoop inside and around the barn, trying to find another corner to build a new home. They aren’t happy, that’s clear.
Birds have strong opinions, especially when it comes to territory.
One recent spring we had three adolescent red-tailed hawks all battling over boundaries around our land. Again, our barn seemed to be the main goal; they fought over perches on the roof as if the building were Little Round Top at the battle of Gettysburg. Finally two hawks gave in and moved on, leaving one to gloat before he left in search of a mate.
The raptors are a common sight in the forests near my house. They mate for life, which became apparent during a tragedy several years ago.
Somehow a truck driving too fast hit a female red-tailed hawk who swooped too low. She died instantly. Her body lay on the ground while her mate, beside himself, kept nudging her to get up.
My rural neighborhood became entranced by this wild bird in mourning.
The hawk was so upset that he didn’t move when I approached to examine the stiffening body of his mate. Instead he hopped around and made little, distressed chirps, nothing like the full-throated caw I had become accustomed to when they are in flight.
At one point, he looked up at me, directly into my eyes, and for a few moments we stared at each other. I sensed his confusion and something akin to grief. I wanted to help. So a neighbor and I gently moved the body of the female off the road farther into a field so that her mate could at least mourn in safety. The male hawk kept vigil by the body for two days before finally flying off. I’ve never forgotten the experience.
But some experiences aren’t quite so moving. One day, close to midnight, I was walking the dog before turning in and I heard a sound that could have been taken from the movie “Jurassic Park.” As it came closer and closer, I realized it had to be a bird, but with such a harsh cry it sounded for all the world like a pterodactyl. The sound made my hair stand on end. My heart racing, I took a recording of the sound as I hurried home. (It’s here; a minute long, you will hear my footsteps, tree frogs, and a very scary cawing at 3, 17, 20, 35, 49 and 60 seconds) The next day, I played it for my friend Lance, an expert birder.
“That’s a blue heron,” he said immediately.
I was taken aback. We have a blue heron who is partial to our pond. Maybe the bird’s caw wouldn’t sound quite so creepy during the day, but it was beyond me how such a beautiful bird can have such an ugly, even terrifying cry. Particularly at midnight. We both wondered what frightened it at that time of night.
Another drama involving birds is playing out on our property this spring. We have a visitor.
A farmer neighbor first spied the bird, new to these parts, while passing by our fields, and called us immediately. Then another neighbor saw it: a golden pheasant, with glorious red, yellow, blue and green plumage. My husband was the next to spy this timid bird, a flying rainbow in the forest. I haven’t been so fortunate. Perhaps he has moved on. Wherever he is, I hope he is safe.
We were graced by his presence, however short his stay. They have so many enemies, the birds: climate change, loss of habitat, cats, hunters, the blades of wind farms, airplanes, glass doors, predators. They give us so much more than we could ever give them.
Even the birds, be they purple martins or barn swallows, who remain annoyed with me. I guess if they want to nest in our barn, it’s the least I can do.
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I was weeping right along with you at the story of your red-tailed hawk, now widower. And relating 100% to the unfortunate choice of nest. We have a hatch of robins right by the back door. We can continue to use the back door but at risk of peril to the 3 hatchlings, who won't get fed as mommy flies away when we do. We have opted to just walk around the house to get to the back yard. Our back deck is also out of commission for the duration. (Shrugs)
Thanks for this lovely portrayal of life!