It’s been a summer filled with swallows for me. Swallows in the barn and “Swallows and Amazons”. I never read Arthur Ransome’s children’s book series when I was little. I knew of the books, but I thought they were something else, something I wasn’t interested in. I don’t remember why I listened to his first book this summer – “Swallows and Amazons”. Why did it turn up in the list of books the algorithms thought I would be interested in? I don’t know, and I don’t remember why I added it to my audio library – probably because I thought it was time I knew what was in this book that I had encountered so many times but never read. I listened to it while I did the daily pick of the veggie garden. Swallows and Amazons forever! It was, for me, a perfect summer read.
The swallow in the book was a boat. The swallows in the barn are birds. They discovered the barn two or three years after it was built. The first year we had one nest. The second three or four. Last year 75 swallows fledged. This year I lost count but I am sure it was well over a hundred.
That’s just from the nests in the barn aisle. I don’t try to count the many nests that are tucked away in other parts of the property. This year we had four waves of clutches. I’m used to a second cohort of eggs being laid – not a third and then a fourth.
The babies in the first cohort hatched just as the monsoon rains started. I worried over every clutch. How were the parent birds supposed to find enough insects in these heavy, cold downpours? But somehow they did. All the babies survived and fledged from the nests.
Then the second cohort of eggs was laid and the process was repeated. One pair built a nest on top of a duster we use to clean away cob webs. It was propped up in the wash stall. There were so many more likely spots up in the rafters, but these parents chose the duster.
When the eggs hatched, I climbed up on a stool every day and took pictures of the babies. They were so very tiny at first, five little fluffs of down.
The rains continued all through July so again I worried that the parent birds wouldn’t be able to bring enough insects for them. But somehow the parents managed. The babies very quickly became five not so very tiny hatchlings. The nest was so tiny. It seemed impossible that they could all fit. I moved all of the water buckets out of the wash stall. I didn’t want any little bird falling into the water on their first flight from the nest.
I watched them grow and finally fledge. They joined the dawn chorus of swallows that perched every morning on the roof of the composter.
At night they returned not to their nests but to the metal conduit that runs the length of the barn aisle. It contains the wiring for the lights. And apparently it is the perfect place to perch at night. I remember returning to the barn especially late one night. I turned on the aisle lights and saw a line of fledglings running the length of the barn. I received some resentful chirps. “Turn off the lights. We’re trying to sleep!”
I thought the July nests would be the last. They have been in previous years, but this year I kept spotting another and then another mother bird starting a new clutch of eggs. Just when I thought the last of the clutches had fledged, I spotted two more nests with mother birds sitting on freshly laid eggs. I did a quick calculation. I had watched the duster nest so closely. I knew how long these eggs would need to hatch and then for the nestlings to fledge. They wouldn’t be ready to leave the nest before the end of August. The other swallows were already beginning to leave. The dawn chorus wasn’t as loud. The sky wasn’t filled with the swoop and call of several hundred swallows.
By mid-August the nestlings were beginning to peek over the edge of the nest. A couple of days later five not so tiny nestlings were jostling for room in their very tiny nest. Every day I thought this would be their last day in the nest. And it was for one of the nests. I saw the first flight of one of the little ones. It flapped it’s way down the barn aisle and landed on one of the horses, right behind his ears. He didn’t seem to take any notice. The bird remained there for about twenty minutes before making it’s second attempt at flight. It landed on the ground in the indoor. Should I interfere? I didn’t want one of the horses to step on it.
I went in to check on it. It flew up onto the rail of the arena and then off across the pasture. I worried that I had startled it, and the parent wouldn’t be able to find it. It’s always so hard to know when to interfere. To my great relief it was back that evening roosting with it’s nest mates up in the rafters.
The last nest was easily a week behind this one. Every morning I looked up to see if the nestlings were still there. I was watching the dawn chorus shrink day by day. These nestlings were going to have a hard start. There wasn’t going to be time for them to grow strong and learn their flying skills before they would need to migrate.
One morning the nest looked empty. They were on their way! But no. There was still one bird left in the nest. It bobbed it’s head up just enough to be seen. For two days it remained in the nest. Finally the parent bird gave it a nudge. The little one had ventured out on the metal conduit for the lights. The parent bird landed beside it, then sidled closer, pushing the little one along the rail. When it was wedged against the rafter and could go no further, the parent bird pecked at it. It was as if the parent bird was saying: “we can’t wait any longer! You have to leave.” The little one flew from the rail. First flight had been achieved.
That was a couple of days ago. This family group is still here. They come back at night to roost in the barn. The evening Hurricane Ida brought a long night of heavy rain to this area, they were sleeping safely perched up on the metal conduit.
This morning, the day after Ida flooded New York City and left upstate New York drenched in rain, the barn yard was quiet. There were no fledglings on the composter. There were no swallows swooping through the air. The sky was a beautiful blue as it often is after hurricane weather, but there were no birds in the air. I wish this swallow family a safe journey, and I hope they will return next year.
I worry for these fledglings. They have left it late to begin their journey south. And I worry for all the swallows, and all the birds heading off in this changing world. Rachel Carson warned of a silent spring. I do not want to think about a summer without swallows.
In September of 2019 I began the Horses for Future podcast. It isn’t about horse training – that’s for Equiosity. In the Horses for Future podcast I explore what horse people can do to help with the climate change crisis. This summer the news has been filled with so much sadness, so many terrible events. There was the horrific flooding in Germany, the earthquake in Haiti, the fires on the west coast, the trauma that our departure from Afghanistan, the ever-present corona virus. And here I am writing about what horse people can do to help in the climate change crisis. It can seem so trivial – and so privileged – talking about horses and their care.
Individually what any of us do isn’t even a drop in the bucket, but add up each tiny contribution and we can make a difference. Each drop of rain that fell overnight was just that – a drop of rain – but collectively all that water flooded New York City.
This summer I had my own small climate change crisis. Long story short I had to have some repairs done on my house. It involved bulldozers which changed the flow of water around the house. In July when the skies opened up with monsoon rains, the result for me was a flooded basement. I’ve had a wet basement before, but never one where things were literally floating. I now have three sump pumps in the basement and that seems to be working to stay ahead of the monsoon floods. I spent a good many days carrying the contents of the basement up the stairs and out into the garage for storage.
Something had to give and that something was the Horses for Future podcast. I haven’t published an episode since spring. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day to get it done and deal with the house. I’ve thought about just letting the podcast slip away. There are so many podcasts out there. And there are so many people who know much more about the issues surrounding climate change than I do. But that’s actually the point. I’ve learned so much by doing the podcast which means I assume others listening to the podcast are, as well.
I learned about mycorrhizal fungi and how important they are for soil health and the role they play in sequestering carbon. I’ve learned a lot more about biodiversity because of the work of Dr Doug Tallamy. Thanks to my journey round the world visiting other horse owners who are also thinking about climate change and better ways to manage their land, I’ve been testing different ways of managing my own pastures. I’m making changes for the good of my local environment. If we all do the same, it will add up.
So I’m going to continue with the podcast. I’ll be visiting with friends from around the world. Together we will make a positive difference for the planet.
When I wear my training hat, I talk about constructional training. We look at what we want our horses TO DO and we train those behaviors. The alternative is to focus on the problem and to try to stop what we don’t like. I prefer to focus on the desired outcome and to build clean, new behavior.
So I’m not going to think about the disaster that is climate change. Instead I am going to focus on the behavior that will create the outcomes that I hope we all desire – a spring that brings the swallows back to our barns and a summer that is anything but quiet.
You can listen to the Horses for Future podcasts at sequestercarbon.com