(Minds out of the gutter please,
it stands for My Favorite Nest)
Barns harbor many more animals than the ones we put into them. They also house destructive rodents (grateful the neighbor’s cat decided he likes our vermin better than his original human’s brand,) wasps in the haymow and ground hornets in the pastures. We have the more desirable varieties, as well, such as insect-gobbling house sparrows and barn swallows (those swallows can build a perfect mud nest on top of a light fixture in the few hours between morning and evening chores – highly entertaining.) For all these living creatures, we are responsible, whether it’s to annihilate them or to watch over them.
I’m particularly fond of barn swallows. We have as many as thirty nests at a time in our horse barn, but I keep familiar with all of them. I know who’s sitting, who’s got new hatchlings, who’s frantically feeding and who is fledging. My favorite nest (MFN) sits atop the light fixture between Mary and Viola’s stalls. Every year the parents hatch out two clutches of five babies who are bursting out of the nest long before they are ready to fly (kinda like me and my jeans after fajita and margarita night at Senor Panchos.)
2022 was a rough year for our barn swallows. The lack of redtail hawks (rat poison – please stop using it!) allowed the crows to invade the farm, and they raided the barn for nestlings, which was traumatic for everyone involved. All baby swallows still in their nests were wiped out, with much screaming and frantic chasing from the parents, and a lot of foul language, bucket-throwing and tears from me. MFN, thankfully, had fledged only days before the attack of the “murder” of crows, saving their lives.
We’d also had a new roof installed, which disturbed some brand-new sparrow hatchlings when their nests were exposed. The survivors were rushed to rehabbers.
I was traumatized.
Early last week, the second batch of MFN babies fledged, and I found them enjoying flight school above the driveway outside the eastern barn doors. I breathed a sigh of relief as they were now safe from the murderous murder of crows. When I entered the barn, however, there was still one baby in the nest. It happens – one is often a slower flyer than the rest. This one, however, was so much smaller than the others. I had noticed one baby spent a lot of time at the back of the nest, and he didn’t chime in as vociferously as the others when food arrived. Was this one a late hatcher? The parents fed him occasionally as he languished in the nest, but not often enough . . .
That night, all the babies came back to the nest to sleep, which made me feel better, but the next day, off they flew, and our little late bloomer remained behind. The parents chased the other babies with moths and squash bugs, but seldom visited our little leftover. By noon he had hunkered down in the nest and barely raised his head. By 1pm, I panicked. I grabbed my bag of handfeeding formula and a tiny syringe, snagged the baby from the nest and started supplementing. Two tiny syringes every two hours, then back into the nest, hoping somewhere in between the parents would pop by with a snack. This bird was TINY, no more than three quarters the size of his siblings.
You know, because I need one more thing to obsess about . . . ACK!
Then the inner turmoil began. Should I take him home with me and feed him until I could bring him to a rehabber? Or leave him in the nest for a day or two, supplementing, then bring him to rehab? How often should I supplement? I had no way of knowing if he was getting enough from his parents, but I doubted it. How long could I maintain running to the horse barn every two hours? (The answer was, of course, as long as I had to.) And then, if too many days passed, when should I decide there was something wrong with him and he wasn’t capable of flying?
The days slid by, and my little feathered friend hung on. At first, I had to take him out of the nest to syringe food into his mouth, but within a few days, he learned to climb out onto the edge of the nest and open his mouth when I approached. Two tiny syringes, and he’d poop off the edge of the nest and snuggle back into MFN. We built quite a routine. I knew I should go to the pet store and get meal worms for him, but . . . first, it’s not easy to get off the farm, and second, I was hoping his parents were still getting a few bugs into him each day. Their large and raucous brood was very demanding of them out in the yard, so who knew? We kept our routine over the weekend, but by Monday, I really began to worry. What if he never flew? What if he did, but his parents ignored him and didn’t continue to feed him alongside his siblings? I’d never be able to help him once he was out and about . . . have I ever mentioned it is HELL being me? Maybe, I thought, it was time for a rehab . . . but I didn’t make the call.
Instead, we began flight school. Every time I fed him, I took him out of the nest and set him on my finger. Then, I would drop my hand quickly, forcing him to flap his wings to keep his balance. I counted out ten times. Twelve the next time. Fifteen. By Tuesday afternoon, he was flapping steadily. I set him back into the nest that evening and minutes later, he was joined by his siblings, some of whom would pop in and visit him during the day for a snuggle and a nap. I have never seen fledglings revisit a nest as often as these little ones visited their undersized nestmate. It was so sweet it brought tears to my eyes . . . often.
Wednesday morning, I got to the barn at 6:20 am. I reached up to prod my little dude out of the hollow and give him breakfast, but it was empty. Crap. CRAP CRAP CRAP CRAP! I started searching the barn floor for him. Nothing. WHERE WAS THE CAT? I called Mags and he strolled down from the haymow, clearly just woken up from a long sleep. I fed him his breakfast in the office, then started hunting again. Did he fail? Did he fly? WHO WAS FEEDING HIM??? The horses were losing patience with me, banging on their stalls when their food was not forthcoming. I gave up and went outside to throw hay. And there, lined up on the gutter of the indoor arena, was a family of young barn swallows . . . one, two, three, four, five babies, and two parents. One of the babies was barely three quarters the size of the rest. As I approached, all of them flew away . . . except for one . . . who hopped onto the edge of the gutter and opened his mouth. I could see the splotches on his neck where I had done a poor job of cleaning up after his last feeding. My little dude didn’t fail . . . he FLEW!
I checked on him all day. Obsessively. He hung out on the indoor arena gutter with one of his fat siblings, who I was sure was the one who had napped with him every day (this little bird was chubby!) It wasn’t until afternoon feeding, when I saw him with his chubby buddy perching over the arena sliding doors, parents racing back and forth popping bugs into their beaks, that I relaxed. My guy wasn’t flapping and demanding like his sibling, but rather, he opened his mouth and waited, and his parents, bless their rapidly beating little hearts, kept popping the food in. I realized my job was done, and I could finally breathe.
Later, when I returned to set the grain buckets for morning, I had to duck as a posse of fledgling swallows swooped through the barn aisle and past my head. All of them flew out the other end except for one, who swooped back and did his best hummingbird imitation, trying to hover in front of me, then circled my head a few times and hovered again.
I smiled and held up my finger for him. He flew towards it, but mere inches away, changed his mind and backed off. Smart bird. Born, or rather hatched, free, he had made the right decision for both of us. It was time for me to let go and let his parents do their job, and I turned to finish setting grain.
I couldn’t stop smiling the entire time. In fact, I still am . . .
Until next spring, MFN birds. Hoping for a quiet and prolific season.
Meanwhile, people, DON’T POISON YOUR RATS!!!! You can’t imagine how widespread the damage and suffering reaches, and in ways I never imagined!
Kathleen Schurman and her husband David are owned by the animals of Locket’s Meadow Farm (and assorted wild animals) sanctuary.