I remember mowing my great grandmother’s lawn as a kid. Located in the flat country of the Lake Michigan coastal plain, this old farmstead with sideways chicken coops and crumbling barns made for interesting mowing, especially due to dive bombing swallows. Years later, I would discover that the railroad abutting the old farmstead still held a piece of mesic prairie—one of the most endangered and fragmented plant communities in the state of Wisconsin. Little did I know that six species of swallows call Wisconsin home, or that these local swallows were caring for nearby nests.
No, as I mowed as a kid I knew none of this, I merely risked life and limb each time I pulled out the riding mower, skirting rectangular patterns around the outbuildings. I feared the day a swallow would drill my face; they never did.
Today, I see daily the barn swallow nest under the deck on Prairie Lane, and it’s a happy reunion each year when they return from South America and brilliantly grace spring with their rich orange undersides. Of course, this acquaintance has run into some neighborly conflict.
I clean up the droppings from the chicks once they’re big enough to move around the nest, while on the other side of things, the parents are disturbed off the nest every time we come and go from the house. As a mark in my favor, one barn swallow a few years ago flew behind me through the open screen door and crashed about the inside of the house, leaving behind some feces. As a mark against me, I occasionally stick my camera, with the flash on, into the nest to see how many eggs and chicks occupy it—an obtrusive gesture, especially when chicks expecting a meal are disappointed to find bright lights and an iPhone.
All in all, I get along with my barn swallow neighbors, and they are beautiful to watch in flight while they pick off dragonflies and the like. Currently, these birds are particularly abundant because recently fledged young are maneuvering their way around old farmsteads in ways only a barn swallow can. The pair under my deck already fledged four young, and the second brood is now hatched and getting ready to fledge. This species needs man-made structures to nest, or will otherwise nest on cliffs and ledges. Thus, the barn swallow exists in a secure state and is nearly worldwide in distribution.
In fact, recent observations have confirmed that barn swallows, in an unlikely move, have started nesting on overwintering grounds. Traditionally, their breeding range has included most of the northern latitudes while wintering grounds included most of the southern hemisphere. In another twist, during winter, these breeding Argentinian barn swallows migrate north for winter. The exact reason for this shift is unknown, but the barn swallow, already a bird happy with human innovations, has turned its own innovation by completely changing its migratory patterns.
You can find barn swallows around most of the buildings around Faville Grove Sanctuary; you can’t miss them.
Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward
Cover photo by USFWS Midwest Region