Curiosity was my downfall
There's a precious birdhouse in our backyard that my sister and brother-in-law gave me a couple of years ago. We mounted it on a wooden beam in the yard that used to hold a bug zapper (which we removed because it attracted more insects than it zapped). For the second year in a row, nuthatches appeared to be nesting in the birdhouse in mid-April, but I hadn't seen any activity around it in a few weeks. I was curious if there was anything in it, and I also wanted to figure out how easily the top could be removed so I could clean it every now and then. Frankly, I was curious about what I'd find there.
I had to fetch a stool to get high enough to see into the hole, and I was very cautious and deliberate in my approach for two reasons: 1) I didn't want to have an irate bird fly out into my face and 2) I didn't want to find something unpleasant like a snake.
I had to put my hand on the wooden frame as I stood up on the stool, and when I did, I heard a kind of squeaking. At first I thought it was the wood of the frame creaking against my weight, but then I heard it again, much more loudly this time. Suddenly, I saw motion out of the corner of my eye.
Attacked by a pair of tree swallows!
The iridescent blue of the male flashed by, followed closely behind by the less colorful, but equally ferocious female swallow, swooping past me at head height, screeching and cackling frantically! They swept past and initiated a sharp turn that would have made a stunt pilot proud. Even in my startled state, I thought of Dad flying P-51s in air fights over the skies of Europe during WWII. What aerial acrobats these birds are!
A hasty retreat seemed prudent. Not wanting to upset them any more than I had already, I quickly stepped down from the stool and hauled it away. The chatter died down as I retreated.
Meet the Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)
Let me introduce you to my attackers, because they are quite likely to reside in your backyard too, especially if you have trees or nesting boxes near water and live in northern North America (CLICK HERE to find a range map in the right sidebar). This habit of nesting in tree cavities is where they got their name, because they're actually most often seen in open, treeless areas where they can swoop and fly. They forage on flying insects, usually no more than 40 feet off the ground: dragonflies, flies, bees, butterflies, moths, and damselflies, as well as spiders, mollusks, and roundworms.
Most members of the swallow family have the forked/notched tail and swooping flight patterns. Tree Swallows can be distinguished by the male's blue back and their white throat and breast. I nicknamed them “tuxedo birds,” because at a distance, when you can't see the blue, it's the white that makes them stand out. Look for them in open fields or marshes near fresh water. They're often seen flying or perched on utility wires and shrubs. They're very vocal, and when they're not threatened, their chirping is quite lovely. CLICK HERE to listen to some Tree Swallow recordings on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. In the winter, they head south, but usually no farther than the extreme southeastern and southwestern United States or slightly into Mexico.
Kinship with mothers of all species
I was quite honestly impressed with the courage of those little birds, defending their nest against a giant. At the risk of being too anthropomorphic, they reminded me of mothers everywhere who would throw themselves in front of an oncoming train if they thought it would protect their child. With rare exceptions, mothers of almost every species will fight fiercely to protect their young. Mother Nature has equipped us well to preserve and perpetuate the species!
Enjoy these bird field guides and lots of other nature products at the Online Nature Mall.
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