Share this article

print logo

Gladys Gifford: What a treat to watch chicks hatch and grow

These may be the lazy, hazy days of summer for humans, but for wildlife the hot weather brings a burst of activity, mating and nesting and raising the young. I’ve enjoyed a close-up view of one species this summer – a pair of barn swallows.

My husband and I have a summer place, in the hills near Naples. We had a simple shed built there to house tools and utilities. Various critters and insects have taken shelter on or in that shed over the years – hornets, yellow jackets, snakes, mice – but this year we welcomed some very special visitors: nesting birds.

Two barn swallows began nesting in May. The process began rather simply. A swallow perched on the window frame under the eave, then daubed mud-spit on the front surface of the frame with its beak. The pair constantly added more bits of sticky mud mixed with straw and grasses to build a form that extended outward from the vertical plane. They kept building up, plastering more mud and straw, trading efforts until the finished nest was as elegant as any wall sconce shaped by humans.

Once it was finished, they added feathers to line the nest and the female laid three eggs. Soon hatched, the chicks were downy, with eyes and beaks too large for their bodies. These three top-heavy fuzz-balls sported bright yellow beaks against black bodies.

Then the feeding began, parents ferrying food constantly from early morning to late night. First, a parent regurgitated food deep into each wide-open mouth. Later, they offered whole insects.

The chicks grew visibly each day. We were able to observe them for nearly a week. At first they were blind, but by midweek their eyes had opened and they were shuffling in the nest ready to stretch their new wings.

They were still in the nest in early July, when my husband made a quick visit to the property. But they must have fledged soon afterward; they were gone when we returned in late July.

Barn swallows are elegant in form and coloring. No bigger than a sparrow, they are built for speed, with aerodynamic wings and tails that are smooth and pointed as they soar high and wide over meadows chasing insects. They perch, briefly, on high electric wires; but during this nesting time we saw their colors close up: iridescent blue-black head, back and wings; creamy belly; rufous bib and face; and black eyes, beak and legs.

Were they successful? Did all the nestlings survive? We’ll never know for sure, but during our July visit I saw a flock of barn swallows. They buzzed our shed early that morning. swooping and wheeling in huge circles, speeding in close to the old nest on the shed then swerving at the last second – a ballet in the air. Were the three fledglings in the group? Was the flock remembering the location, to mark it for next year?

I hope so. And I hope they will return next year, and the year after that. After all, this is the joy of our summer place, where we manage the land for the wildlife – where the grasses form habitat for the dragonflies and fireflies and all manner of insects that the barn swallows and the tree swallows chase freely; where frogs of all sizes thrive on wetland and in the pond; where bushes and trees and wild grasses and flowers nurture goldfinches and bluebirds and groundhogs and deer – alongside neighbors near and far who cherish adjoining lands with similar passion.