Friday, July 23, 2010

I'm a Home Wrecker

Let us a little permit Nature to take her own way; she better understands her own affairs than we.
Michel de Montaigne, translated

I've destroyed a family, or two.

For the past couple years, we've had a family of Barn Swallows living in our dock eaves. We like them. They sit on the fan above us and sing to us. We watch as their young awaken and the parents tend and protect them, teach them to soar the sky and eat the spiders and mosquitoes living around us. They keep a neat nest and have a lovely song.

On another eave, we've had a sparrow family. I've lain in my hammock and watched that mother push her young out of the nest and down the railing, letting them know their time to explore on their own has arrived. One day last year I observed an eight hour process from pushing the babies away to their actual flight. (Wish raising my own kids had been that easy.)

The Swallows and Sparrows appeared to live in relative peace until this year. The Bird Wars have begun. Apparently in this mottled sparrow mess of collected treasures, the eggs did not hatch.

Which caused the male sparrow to stake out another space and claim the entire dock as his domain. With relentless fervor, he and his female crew began nest making in various spaces, including the swallow nests. Messy nests. Eggs galore.

The swallows relocated their nest to the neighbor's dock, but the neighbors promptly removed it. These human inhabitants also spray constantly for spiders and fog their entire yard to kill any bugs. Seems rather futile to me - we are at the lake.

After a few days back in town, I returned to the cabin. From our front window I saw a flurry of activity down on the dock. With my binoculars, I watched a flustered female sparrow pick up stray nest pieces in her beak, a tad frantic as to how to get them back in place. I assumed the swallows had returned to reclaim their own home and deflect the new building. A walk on the the dock proffered indeed the discovery of broken eggs on the ground, their yellow yolks on the sun-warmed wood looking like a miniature fried egg.

Finally having an opportunity to string a couple of days together to mimic a compete slug and hibernate in my hammock, I found myself engulfed in the middle of these bird wars swarming above me. Seemed a nonstop daily cycle of rebuilding and destruction of homes. The swallows flying through the spires of the dock patrolling the area. No physical fights, just a show of unity and diligence on the part of the swallows. The sparrows - domineering and invasive, unwavering. I decided to intervene.

I had my tallest son - 6'3" climb the ladder and remove the sparrow messes from the swallow nests. And, the extra ones they had started on other rafters. We only cleaned up the nest with the unhatched eggs, as the grasses and collected pieces of feather and matter in that nest dangled like two feet of hanging trash. Following Linda at Wander to the Wayside's lead, I hoped that the nest with lifeless eggs and the loss of their new makeshift nests might force the sparrows to relocate to another dock. My swallows could live in peace. Me, too.

I stayed for a while that afternoon, awaiting the response. The male and female sparrow arrived at their dismantled swallow nest and displayed quiet distress. The female leaned her head against her mates neck for a moment, then flew off. The male, took a few of the loose strands of grass remaining from our cleanup and placed them gently inside the nest.

A tender moment, I'd experienced. I felt like a beast.

Upon leaving the lake later that day, I wondered what might occur while I returned to my home and tended the flock living there. When I returned to the cabin a few days later, armed with my new Google research on the invasive sparrow empire in North America, I worried about my swallows. I found their original nest remained clear. However, another haphazard sparrow nest loomed above me in the rafters. But only one. Seemed the swallows with their tell-tale forked tails had gathered in force - the parents and both sets of babies born this year joined and running recon. One alighting on the fan, while several sat on the eaves, and when the male sparrow inched his way toward the swallow nest, two to three swallows huddled, emphasizing their presence.
Mr. Sparrow keeping watch, never giving up, never giving in.

The swallows equally vigilant.

I question my involvement in this process, that I turn up my nose to my neighbors decisions of chasing away the birds, hanging fake owls, and spraying weekly for spiders. But, I, too, have intervened in the process of nature. Even though I only sought peace for all of them, I chose one over the other. Difficult.

Meanwhile, my birdie looks on.

Happy to visit the lake and spend his mornings outside talking to all his friends as they fly by. Another piece of nature I have to admit I control.


  1. This is a charming story. Mankind ALWAYS intervenes in Mother Nature. You are not the first and will not be the last, I am sure.

  2. I am left not knowing who the Bad Guy is in this tale (tail?). If only there were an Oz for swallows and sparrows...and different neighbors next door out at the lake.

  3. I watch the birds in the yards around me (Papa gave me binoculars)... but I've never read anything like this.

    This is so tender and heart-wrenching. You know... I think I would have done the same thing. Birds used to nest in my hanging plants, and I was short I never knew it. I was watering those baby eggs. But year after year, the birds continued to nest there.

    You have a loving heart.

  4. A tender story. You did what you thought was best ... not to worry.

    We've had a swallow's nest on our front porch for about 4 years and every year Mike has just loved to see them return ... he calls them The Boys. "Oh yay, The Boys are back!" But this spring they didn't return (Mike devastated) and after an inquiry to a swallow expert online I learned that the parents were probably ... well, deceased now. (Mike further devastated) So then a couple weeks later some sparrows took over the nest and had a couple of young 'un's. Mike was resentful and called them The Squatters."
    End of story.

  5. Getting along with the neighbors is hard sometimes, even in the bird world. House sparrows are known for taking over established Bluebird nests in birdhouses, people are advised to tear their nests back out.

    Our male Carolina Wren starts several nests in different places and then the female chooses which one she wants. He's a perfect mate!

    Enjoyed your post very much Julie!

  6. I love your swallows. . . there really wasn't a fair contest for the poor, messy sparrows. I'd have done the same thing!

  7. Oh my..kind of like As The World

  8. I prefer swallows to sparrows but sometimes nature rules against my choices.....I love how you cared enough to at least try to keep the peace.........:-) Hugs

  9. Oh dear. I was all for the swallows until that tender sparrow moment. Sigh. You did your best; mediation is a tough art!

  10. Sometimes letting nature take its course is very difficult to witness. On a happier note, it's nice that you were able to carve out some time at the lake. I'm very jealous.

  11. I am so glad you are there to record and tell us this tale. Perhaps there will be a chapter two...

  12. I agree - this really is a charming story. I would have been hard-pressed not to intervene, too - to address the imbalance, to teach a little lesson or two. Those nature documentarists and field researchers who witness all kinds of heart-wrenching things in the wild must have the same problem.

    You craft your pieces so well, Julie. Your own feathered friend provided the perfect ending - very enjoyable.

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  14. What a charming little story. I too had a neighbor with a fake owl, it conveniently disappeared one night.
    Thanks for sharing.

  15. You're a wonderful storyteller, Julie. Sometimes Mother Nature provides the best material to write about and when you can be part of the solution, it's even better.
    Charming post. Endearing.

  16. See, it's hard to not get involved when they're right under your nose, isn't it? As tender as some of the sparrow moments are, they just can be such bullies! We've always let the nests they built in bluebird houses be if eggs were in place, because they are, well, parents just like all the others, (and also hoping they would just rebuild if we tore it down.)It's interesting how once 'engaged' we cannot help but become involved, and will get out the binoculars and do a commentary in our head or to anyone around us (including the birds or the dog at our feet), attaching our human condition to what in nature is done by pure instinct (we assume)with no real 'emotion' involved. However, having seen mama and daddy bluebird looking frantically for their baby in the yard after having lost all the others in the nest to a snake, I'm convinced that a parent feels a loss whether a human, bird, or dog. I look forward to hearing how your bird battles turn out!

  17. I loved the way you related this experience.
    I probably would have done the same thing.

    Birds are enchanting.

  18. Oh my goodness! It's like a little drama you could put as a backdrop against a real life drama in a novel.

    I think you did what was best and you shouldn't feel bad. You did a great job telling the story!

  19. This was so much fun to read! Barn Swallows are one of those birds from my childhood that have the power to take me straight to what's best about summer.

    I appreciate your dilemma, and if it matters at all, think you did the right thing. The ending with your cute little caged bird caught me off guard - what a great bit of irony there.

    It is interesting that so many of us are writing about birds right now. Maybe summer, maybe we're being called to flight. Aren't you getting close to the time when it gets to be about you?

  20. Incredible. I really enjoyed this look into the birds' lives that you gave us. Thanks for that.

  21. Great story. I, too, wonder about intervention with the birds. We have several nests and all seems peaceful, but I've noticed a neighbor put all sorts of anti-bird things on his roof. Now I have his birds. When do we have too many birds?

  22. Great story. Like the twist at the end. I think one of the hardest things for humans to see is nature's way of survival of the fittest. Seems so cruel sometimes and one wishes to rectify it.

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  24. Really enjoyed this post. We're part of nature too.

  25. You raise really interesting questions. We can't always know the consequences of our choices, but at least you are making thoughtful ones!

  26. Oh the drama! And I thought my hummingbirds were aggressive!

  27. Man interferes in nature all the time, more or less drastic than you did.
    I wonder what would have happened, who'd have won the territorial wars, had you left them to it.

    During nature programmes on TV I often wonder why the film crews don't intervene. I've only seen them do it once, when they gave a helping hand to a nestling which was drowning. It died anyway.

  28. The line of thought on whether to lend a hand or not reminds me of the ethical dilemmas journalists face during disasters. Journalists are sometimes criticized for not helping the people they feature or being insensitive to someone's plight. And yet, if they help one person they risk starting a process they will not be able to follow through on, and if they do not report on what is happening, who will? Sorry, tangent.

    So far, it seems as though the sparrows and swallows have reached something of a detente, with a little help from you.

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  30. What a battle of the birds! They are just like humans really! Some get on well with their neighbours and some don't! LOL!
    Loved this post.
    Your little birdie is the best! You know where he is and he behaves himself.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  31. First off, I envy you your hammock. Secondly, birds are such fascinating creatures. I have a hummingbird feeder out back, and it's so interesting that the hummers will feed when I'm hanging around, but totally avoid the area when I'm not. I think they're growing attached to me...

  32. It's hard to know where to stop.
    We have ducklings in the pond and a raccoon who is also aware of the ducklings. Every night we shine lights on the raccoon and chase it away. Are we just saving the ducklings for a later encounter?

  33. Been there, done that! I'm happy to report that we now have birds nesting in the house we built for STARLINGS, before knowing what pests they are. I don't know what kind of bird has taken over their house, but as far as I'm concerned, anything is better than Mr. and Mrs. Starling!

  34. Yes, I've read how mean sparrows, starlings and mockingbirds can be to other birds. Mean is an understatement! I hope your barn swallows maintain their quiet vigilance and win the battle. (Yes, I did see Lin's story of her bluebird baby.) We have lots of barn swallows around here, but hubby draws the line at them building nests around our front porch because of the poopy mess they make! They have plenty of other buildings here, and no babies have ever been harmed. I would not allow it! ;)

  35. It can be rough out there. You too have utilized tall children for tall jobs.

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