In search of ponies: Swallows keep pests away

Sharna Johnson

I struggled with the thought of knocking it down, but they were working so hard I just didn’t have the heart.

Instead, I sat in the front yard and photographed the swallows as they swooped in and out, fluttering under the eave with beaks full of mud.

Over several days I watched as the mud expanded, and, with the addition of horse hair from the barn and small twigs, a nest began to form in front of my door.

On one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed watching them fly and work and highly valued their life’s mission. But then on the other, I dreaded the day their eggs hatched because I knew those beautiful swoops and dive bombing maneuvers would be directed at me.

However, it wasn’t hard to make me feel better about allowing them to nest because I was looking for justification.

That justification came when Dan True — a nature photographer, author and all around bird lover — found me sitting at my desk Tuesday morning.

He was excited. Really excited.

Pulling a wad of tissue paper from a canister, he unfolded it and exposed a clump of dead mosquitos he had plucked from the bottom of a swallow nest on his porch.

They weren’t in the nest feeding on the chicks — they were the food.

For days he had watched as the adult swallows swooped in and did fly-by feedings, dropping morsels for their little ones.

“Did you know an adult swallow can catch 2,000 mosquitos in a day?” he asked.

Admittedly, no, I didn’t, but I suddenly found myself wanting a few more nests on my porch.

As it happens, True inherited the swallows when a neighbor across the street tore down a nest they tried to build. For three years thereafter, the swallow pair have spent spring and summer on the True’s porch.

Only this year the nest crumbled in the dry heat, sending five chicks tumbling to the ground.

They couldn’t have picked a better porch for their catastrophe.

Scooping up the four survivors under the watchful eyes of their panicked parents, the True’s screwed a plastic bowl to the top of a step ladder, lined it with velvet, and nestled them inside.

The parents didn’t miss a beat and resumed feeding, seeming to understand they had an extra set of helping hands around. And help he did, helping clean the artificial nest and looking after the little tots.

The first two years the swallows would dive bombing and swoop anytime the True’s went on their porch, but no more.

“It’s just a remarkable turnaround. They act like they understand I’m not a threat,” he said. “They are so smart … they seem to understand that I’m on their side.”

Unfortunately the fallen nest was the first sign of trouble for the year and by this week, only one of the juveniles remained alive.

“This dry weather is really a tough situation on these mosquito grabbers… they didn’t have enough insects to keep them alive,” he said. “What it emphasizes is how tough this drought is on wildlife.”

True said he’s got their routine down, and, like clockwork, they raise two, five-egg batches of youngin’s each summer and the pair should have started on their second clutch of eggs this week. However, he found two broken eggs on the ground, evidence, perhaps, that the second nest won’t happen.

Then, about a day from taking wing, the only surviving fledgling was spooked away by a delivery man and hasn’t been seen since. They hope he made it but may never know.

On the off chance mother bird may still lay eggs, True plans to create a small mud puddle so they can build a nest and has decided to tear the nest down every two years to encourage them to build strong, new ones.

Armed with this new information, I’m glad I left my swallows alone and am getting a little excited to hear the tweets.

It’s not fun to be dive bombed, but True assured that swallow “attacks,” while nerve wracking, are almost all show.

I suppose if worst comes to worst I can use another door.

And they will keep those pesky salesmen away — after all, nothing says “No Soliciting” like an angry set of teeny talons grazing your head.

Do your darndest little swallows, I’ve got no room for mosquitos (or salesmen), but I think there’s room enough for you.