After hearing the Violet Green Swallow chicks in the bird house above our side door for the last couple of weeks, and seeing parents fly in and out to feed them, we finally got our first glimpses at the chicks on Friday evening. They had reached the stage in their growth and boldness to be sticking their fuzzy little heads out into the opening to speed up the feeding process. On Saturday, I had a bit more of a chance to observe and photograph them as Michelle and I were outside working on the yard and house.
I set up my 500mm manual with my Nikon D300 on a Gitzo tripod with the Wimberly Head for greatest stability. I simply wanted to frame the shot, then sit back and wait with a cable release. My cue to start the shutter clicking was when the chicks would open their mouths – that meant a parent was on final approach. At the stellar burst rate of 8 frames per second I get with my D300 in RAW mode, the entire feeding transaction would typically only last about four frames before the parent was off again.
But it was not until I was able to look at the still images and zoom in on the feeding parent that I realized how much food was being brought each time. In one count, I saw as many as ten mosquitos in the mouth of the parent before it literally stuck its head inside the mouth of its chick to, presumably, spit out or regurgitate the food quickly and take flight again. I had to wonder how the parent kept so many bugs in its mouth while still going out and catching more. Of course, I knew it was one of the reasons why we like having swallows on our property; their propensity for eating mosquitoes. It is the same reason we installed a bat house as well; no bats yet, but it can take a couple of years. But when they do move in, they, too will contribute to the mosquito abatement by eating up to 5,000 mosquitoes per bat in a day.
Every once in a while, after the parent fed the chicks, we could hear some furious beating of wings from inside the house. The chicks were building up strength in their wings, getting eager to fledge. I knew they would not be ready to go on Saturday, but imagined it would happen sometime in the next week. Later in the afternoon, I think the parents were starting to get a little tired of the constant hunting. They started to take turns taking a brake on the peak of the roof top, just a few feet above and out of sight of their chicks.
On Sunday afternoon, we had some friends and family over for a little grilling in the back yard. Later in the afternoon, one of the kids noticed a fledged swallow chick in the grass. She wanted to tell the boys – oh, how cool they would think THIS was! NO! We advised. We certainly do not want the boys to know there is a vulnerable animal in the yard, that is, if we want it to survive. It seemed calm resting in the grass and clover, and we wondered what to do with it. Soon, it was decided we would try to put it back in the nest. We simply assumed it had come from the bird house above the door, as we were not aware of any other nests nearby. Michelle put on gloves to handle the bird and I positioned the ladder and took a look inside the bird house – both chicks were there. Michelle tried to put the swallow chick in the bird house, but it wouldn’t go – perhaps realizing that it was best not to invade a foreign nest – and flew/glided back down to the ground.
Knowing the number of outdoor cats in the area, we thought it best to take the chick and put it up someplace high. We chose a corner of the roof over our large storage shed. Our friend Joe go the idea to try to feed it an ant … no success. The little chick, which Michelle and I later named “Icky” (short for Icarus), kept a tight beak. We decided to build him a nest consisting of a small terrarium, a towel and some grass, and covered it with a towel to help keep in warmth. After our guests left, Michelle and I wondered what we could do to help Icky gain his strength to where he could survive on his own. Clearly he had been abandoned. He soon stopped chirping out to his parents, perhaps succumbing to his fate.
We decided we would try to figure out how to feed him, then perhaps investigate whether the Bird Treatment and Learning Center could take him in. I could not find anything using Google on feeding abandoned swallow chicks (just when you thought you could find anything using the Google), so I found the Bird TLC website and called their number. As luck would have it, they have a relationship with the PET Emergency Treatment center. PET takes in all abandoned or injured birds that need care after Bird TLC’s hours. So, we called PET, learned what we needed to do, and took Icky over there. They would feed him and keep him warm until Bird TLC could take him in on the next business day. Eventually, he will be strengthed and cared for until he is strong enough, then released into our neighborhood so he could return to his original habitat.
The last time we had been to PET Emergency was under some very unhappy circumstances, so it was nice to be able to go there for a good reason. And while we did not aid in natural selection by helping Icky out of his pickle, Michelle and I discussed on the way home how it is our ability for compassion and empathy that truly sets us aside from the other animals. In the wild, it is unheard of to accept even animals from the same species into your care if they are not from the same family unit. Yet we as humans have the capability to accept and care for all sorts of animals from various species, and have even spent thousands of years in genetically modifying wild animals to make them more compatible as companions. Natural selection still has plenty of opportunities to take care of business. There was no need for it to have success with our little feathered friend.