Throughout this blog, if it survives past the first year, there will, no doubt, be lots of mentions of swallows. Most years they nest in my stables and during their stay with me, they bring me such joy.
14 or 15 years ago I had just one pair nesting in my spare stable, out of which I had just moved my horse. They had built their nest high on the gable end wall which was, unfortunately, in front of the stable door. This put them in danger from my young cats.
As soon as the hen started to sit on the nest, I made a mental note to shut the top stable door, as soon as I saw the broken shells on the stable floor, to thwart my cats’ attempts to get up to the nest. The swallows would be able to fly in and out through the stable nextdoor.
My mother was coming to stay that Saturday, so I was a little distracted and missed the broken shells. As I walked past the spare stable, when I went to let my horse out, I looked up at the nest and then down to the floor where I saw, to my dismay, the broken nest and three inert, nude little bodies on the shavings. My heart sank. Too late. I was heartbroken.
I picked up the three little bodies that could only have been a day or so old. They were but 1.5 inches long and completely bald except for a few bits of fluff. I cupped them in my hands taking the opportunity to look at wild birds at such close quarters. As they lay in my hands, looking much like Disney characters with their big heads and eyes and huge yellow beaks, did I notice a flicker of an eyelid? Was there a chance that one of them was still alive after such a fall? I carefully cupped my hands around them, warming them and blowing gently on them. Slowly, slowly, two of them began to squirm, they were still alive, I could hardly believe it!
Now, what could I do with them? Waiting a while, until they had warmed up, I placed them on a duster, in a bowl, and put them in my linen cupboard, well away from marauding cats! Then left to drive down to my mother’s to bring her back.
On my return, I checked the linen cupboard and they were still alive! But what to feed them? It was the beginning of May, cold for that time of the year and it hadn’t rained for over a month. No flying insects L. I checked an RSPB leaflet I happened to have on caring for fledglings. Cripes, I thought, these weren’t fledglings, they were newborns! Well, it suggested scrambled eggs, and digestive biscuits soaked in water which I proceeded to feed them every few hours, with the help of a pair of tweezers.
Over the next few days, cut up worms (eeek) some flies I managed to swat (two amorous flies in one go which was a bonus) were added to their diet. They continued to survive, if looking a bit of a mess with little bits of scrambled egg and biscuit scattered about their person.
Their ‘nest’ changed to a shoebox packed with hay. They were so cute, the slightly larger one nestled his sibling under his wing and, before long, every time I opened the bathroom door they heard me coming and began to cheep madly!
Outside I could see a pair of swallows sitting up on the electricity wires above my paddock. I took the chicks in their shoebox, covered with a tea towel, out to the paddock and stood under the wires. Uncovering the shoebox, and saying to the chicks “Now cheep for all you’re worth” I held the box up, at arms’ length to let mum and dad see their chicks in the box. Every evening I did the same as, as luck would have it, the adults were roosting next to their broken nest. “Look”, I would say, “here are your babies”. During that weekend the swallows were flying in an out of my shed and barn looking for their two remaining chicks.
The chicks had fallen out of the nest on the Saturday morning, and by Tuesday morning they were still alive and I was beginning to despair. How could I train them to fly when the time came? How long could I keep feeding them every few hours? How could I continue to keep the cats away from them?
I went for a walk around the stables, hoping for inspiration. Looking into the stable nextdoor to the one with the broken nest, I looked up and saw an unused nest from the year before. Why hadn’t it occurred to me before? Why hadn’t I thought of putting the chicks in there?
Excited by the prospect of a happy ending, I put a step ladder up to the old nest and removed all the cobwebs. I brought the chicks out, stood under the parents up on the wire, removed the tea towel, again holding them up to show them. Did I imagine them moving their heads, looking down…. Quickly I took the chicks into the stable, climbed the ladder and put them, oh dear one went in head first, into the nest.
I left the stable, removing the ladder and went and hid behind my car, peering out the side to see what, if anything would happen…. I can’t type this without the tears welling up in my eyes.. After a few minutes the parents came down from the wires and… flew into the stable. Within ten minutes, they were in and out of the stable feeding their little ones.
Words cannot express how I felt. I could not believe that they had actually been watching, that they found their chicks in the nest in the other stable, three days after they had fallen from the nest nextdoor… and that they had accepted them and carried on as if nothing had happened.
Over the next few weeks I watched those little fluffy creatures turn into fully fledged birds. I was so proud of them when they flew for the first time. I had really bonded with them after caring for them for those three days, trying to find and prepare food for them, worrying about what to do with them.
It is hard to believe the tenacity of that pair of swallows, that they stayed there watching me bring out their chicks to them each day and, when the time was right, picking up feeding and caring for them again. Experts say that birds will reject chicks if they have been handled by humans… This certainly was not the case with my swallows, thank god.
Having read this post you will understand my elation when, probably in April, I will mention that my swallows have returned.