Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Dirty Birds

I've been posting one Yellowstone post after another, and wondering what I would do when the muses move me to post something current .... the muses have moved me. I don't want all of June's happenings to have to wait until I'm finished with my Yellowstone posts. So here goes ......

Cliff swallow peering out of a finished nest.

Dean Creek Elk Viewing, Reedsport, Oregon: We park near the big interpretive pavilion to eat the fish and chips we picked up at Winchester Bay a few minutes ago. The sun is low enough to cast the long grasses and cattails in a warm, late afternoon light. A dozen or more bull elk rest in a cluster off to our right. Elk cows are scattered throughout the flat valley. Their calves disappear into the tall grass unless one holds its head high enough for ears to peek through. Swallows fly low over the tall meadow grass, catching insects. A red-winged blackbird perches briefly on our rear-view mirror. He wants a French fry. Plenty for all.

My fish is delicious, but half my mind is on the vial of fluffy white feathers I’ve been saving for months. Will the swallows be interested? Barn swallows often line their nests with feathers of other birds, often chicken feathers. White feathers seem particularly choice. As soon as I’m done eating I toss one feather, and then another into the rather stiff breeze. Swallows are in the air, but the feathers just drift off and sink into the cattails. Poo. Two more feathers into the breeze. Nothing. In all honesty the swallows are probably way beyond nest building at this point. A steady flow barn swallows flow in and out beneath my feet. They are probably feeding nestlings. The pavilion is built on long pilings and the barn swallows love to tuck their nests on the girders underneath. I crawled down there once for a look, but I upset the whole colony in the process. I’ll leave them in peace.

Above me are about 20 cliff swallow nests tucked at the tops of the tall posts that hold the pavilion roof. It a handsome viewing platform: a circle of eight center posts and eight more forming a larger circle. Two posts have 4 cliff swallow nests each and another 12 nests are scattered amongst the remaining posts. Lots of activity. Cliff swallows are very talkative. Close your eyes and imagine a roomful of squeaky plastic shoes. Busy, busy chatter. Some birds seem to be incubating, a few nests have hatched, two are still under construction, and one holds a pair of house sparrows!

Oh what a mess! This nest is half finished. They began the nest by sticking a large circle of mud onto the back surface … and gradually add one gob of mud after another. This nest is about half finished. Some of the mud is dry. That work was probably done yesterday or earlier. Today’s mud is still dark. The nest is big enough for both to get into at once and still has a large opening so I can see what is going on.

One swoops in carrying a big mouthful of mud. His bill disappears into a goobery mud ball and his chest is muddy. He hops inside, turns around, and tests the edge in a couple of spots before deciding on where to spit out his mud. The gobs of mud on the floor beneath the nest tell me this isn’t always a successful process. This time he spits out the mud onto the lower right edge. The mud is pretty juicy and malleable. He pushes and pokes until it is situated to his satisfaction. Off he goes.

The second swallow swoops in with another load. This gob gets tucked high, part of their roof. Lots of careful tucking to make sure it is in place. And off flies the swallow. Now both are in the cavity at one, both depositing their mud in different places.

We watch the cliff swallows for about an hour. The sun will sink soon and we still have an hour and a half of driving before we get home. I have just two feathers left. Without much hope I toss them into the breeze. Wait! Here comes a barn swallow and catches it before it hits the ground. He carries it high and releases it into the wind. …. Swoops down and catches it again. This time the swallow flies underneath the pavilion with my feather. I do believe my duck feather now lines a barn swallow nest.


  1. Your narrative is enchanting. I can just see the building of the nests, hear all the chattering and then the coup de grais, capture of the feather. Fun fun. I also like to watch the swallows collect the mud. It is just and amazing feat to build a house of mud pellets.

  2. wonderful post and so full of info. We are building a geodesic dome here in north east new Mexico and we live in a pretty thick piñon forest. And up until this spring the swallows are always somewhere else, but this year we are adding a mud room and it has the typical slanted roof and 4 walls kinda look. So the other day while my honey was putting up the tresses for the roof a pair of barn swallows (I think) fly by, through and around checking it out. so exciting. we felt it was such a blessing. plus we keep 3 big black hard plastic pond liners full of water too, so maybe that drew them as well. Hopefully next year they might come back and build a nest under the eaves.
    love reading your blog and am now following
    peace n abundance