Taking flight with young swallows

LAST week a reader wrote to give me a fascinating account entitled, The Apprenticeship of Swallows, recounting the drama she saw unfold from her apartment window.

I cannot do better than recount it, largely in her own words.

Day 1: Today, four newly-fledged swallows have left the nest and sit, huddled together, on the high wall behind an old store room where they were born. Clearly, they have been ordered to stay put and not move. The parent birds spend five or six hours flying back and forth, feeding them every two or three minutes. There is much twittering during these brief seconds of feeding. Occasionally, a bumble bee droning past distracts the chicks and they move around, craning their necks to follow its movement. So much to be seen on the first day out in the world!

In the early evening, both parents return and, as if on a command, the chicks fly with their parents down to their nest.

Day 2: From early morning until late afternoon, the chicks again sit huddled on the high wall and the parents fly back and forth feeding them insects. Towards late afternoon one chick seems to get bored or curious and starts to make short flights from the wall top to the tin roof nearby. His siblings tentatively begin to copy him and, before long, all are flying from the wall to the tin roof and back. The parents greet this adventurous sortie with much excited chattering and twittering; clearly, they approve. This is Flying in a Straight Line Practice.

Subsequently, they lead the youngsters, one by one, to fly down into the store and back again onto the wall. This is Descent and Ascent Flying Practice. The exercise continues for hours. Early in the evening, parents and young fly back to the nest area as one.

Day 3: The chicks emerge in the early morning with the parents. The parents fly onto the telegraph wires and coax the chicks to do likewise. When a chick get a firm hold, the parents celebrate with much excited twittering. When a chick fails to grip the wire, it has to swoop down, around and back up again to attempt another landing.

Exercises in Flying from Wall to Wire, Telegraph Wires Perching, Flying from Wires to a Roof and Swooping to Land on a Wire lasts for three or four hours. When the adults are satisfied that their offspring can perform this ‘high wire act’, they encourage the chicks to follow them in flying in a wide circle around the house. On each round, they fly higher and enlarge the circle. There is a short rest while the adults fly off to catch insects and return to feed the chicks.

Day Four: The family spend from early morning flying around the house. Each time, they move further and further away, until they are flying the length of the street. Now they only occasionally stop near the nesting site and feeding by the parents is not as regular as before. It would seem the chicks have learned to catch some insects on the wing.

When torrential rain begins in the afternoon, the family moves back to the tin roof, where they swoop up and down and back and forth, occasionally retreating inside the nesting area for shelter.

Day Five: The chicks and adults hunt independently. Although they roost near one another, the youngsters are on their own. Happily, they have another 10 weeks to perfect their aerial skills before the long trek to Africa.

Last September, however, this close observer of swallows, Cathy Gannon, witnessed a ‘crash course’ for two youngsters who, having been hatched late, had less time for lessons. She spotted them on the telegraph wire outside the top window of her apartment. Sitting close together, barely moving they were fed by the parents for five or six hours before retreating to the nest. Next day, they were flying. They seemed to have skipped the wall-sitting stage.

A week later, she “watched hundreds of swallows gathering near a local strand for the grand exodus to Africa and, no doubt, these two youngsters were part of that gathering.”

Hatched so late in the season, she hoped their short west Cork apprenticeship had equipped them to fly to Botswana, 6,000 miles away.


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