It all started when we came home after a trip out of town. The tranquil homestead we’d left two weeks ago was not the one we came back to. It had been transmogrified into a Hitchcock movie set.
We stood by the Expedition, suitcases in hand, and watched as a squadron of swallows circled overhead, a bluster of feathered fury.
“What’s going on?” Chris asked as he ducked a bomber.
“I don’t know, but it feels like we’ve entered enemy territory,” I said.
We looked up at the rafters of the shed — a two-story barn-shaped repository that houses everything from leaky waders to an articulating radial arm saw — and counted a colony of nineteen gourd-shaped nests made of mud. Nearly twenty heads with white spots like headlamps poked out from silver-dollar-sized holes. While they cooed — muffled cackles that curdled in their throats — those protecting the airspace issued warning calls. Nyew! Nyew!
“That sound they’re making is awful,” Chris said. “It’s like … creepy.”
“I think it means they’re broody.”
“Yeah, ready to lay eggs. Like chickens.”
“If every one of these nests has eggs in it, we’re screwed. They’re going to take over.”
“Oh, come on, it’s kinda cool. It means we have a bird-friendly environment. And we get to see the little babies hatch.”
“I guess,” Chris said and headed toward the front door. “But it’s all fun and games until someone gets shat on. Let’s see who gets it first.”
Last summer there were two nests in the eaves above my office window. We had debated whether or not to let them stay but decided they were harmless. Besides, we’d never been that close to an active nesting site. They were just a wing’s length away. I skipped up the stairs and pulled back the floor-length curtains to see if our little friends had returned. There, up in the very same spot, were two nests. Then two more. And two more. And two more. Our happy couples had indeed returned, and brought all twenty of their kids and cousins with them. My sparkly morning view to the east was now obliterated by footlong drips of bird crap.
Where does one draw the line, I wondered. In my four years of living in the wilderness, I’ve noticed that there’s a credo amongst the creatures out here: defend your territory at all costs; while my motto —which I’ve adopted since hitting middle age — is “do no harm, but take no shit.” And this little situation of ours was quickly becoming a fecal matter of grand proportions.
I yanked the curtains shut and turned on the Internet satellite for some online investigation. Surely we weren’t the only victims of an avian invasion. A few clicks and I found out I was right. It seems our fellow defenders here in the western U.S. have a variety of methods for sending the swallows of San Juan Capistrano back to the cliffs where they belong: netting, fake owls, vinyl streamers, metal spikes, fiberglass panels, even recordings of hawks and other predators.
One of the more creative contraptions I saw was the WhirlyBird Repeller, which “spins, wobbles, and vibrates, and reflects light like a disco ball.” It’s supposed to look like a peregrine falcon, but I think hallucinogens are needed to get that effect. The trouble with all of these doohickeys is that none of them work, at least not long term. The Petrochelidon pyrrhonota hasn’t made it this far by falling for Wile E. Coyote tricks like that. You might fake ’em out for a while, but then they’ll just breeze right on by your ACME-inspired deterrent. Beep! Beep!
And then there’s the law, which is on their side. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 clearly states that “it is illegal for any person to take, possess, transport, sell, or purchase [migratory birds] or their parts, such as feathers, nests, or eggs, without a permit.” Never mind that these squatters have stowaways onboard — namely, cliff swallow bugs (Oeciacus vicarius), a relative of the bedbug that’s evolved to live off swallow blood exclusively and can survive up to two years without feeding. Their nests teem with these foul little transmitters of disease. And when the swallows head to South America for the winter, the mooches move inside your house, a much more comfortable and structurally stable accommodation than the one cobbled together with mud and spit.
Though I have to admit, it’s a medium-sized miracle for a cliff swallow to build a nursery. Each nest is made up of fifteen hundred beak-sized balls of dirt that the construction worker wings to the building site. That’s 1,500 roundtrips per home. And a lot of new construction doesn’t make it, due to high winds, too much rain, too much humidity, and who knows what else. The failure rate is stunning. We witnessed it firsthand around the shed. For every two nests secure in the rafters, one sat in shambles on the ground, presenting a perfect opportunity for the newly homeless swallow bugs to find a fresh source of food. Which made me wonder what was happening with the bird condos at the cabin, not a hundred feet away. Were our beds secure?
On the bright side, our cliff swallows have been eating mosquitoes, flies, and other annoying insects by the bucket load. A comforting thought if you’re concerned about West Nile. And they eat on the wing. It’s fun to watch them dip and soar and cut across our pond to scoop a sip of water. Plus, they’re communal. They give a brother (or a cousin) a hand. In fact, some of the male swallows build nests that they’ll never even live in. They’re just helping out because, in their case, it really does take a village. And they need the practice. The male who can’t construct a viable home is a bird without a babe.
All of which makes it hard for one to coldheartedly hose down their cozy jug-shaped condos. That is, until you start to do the math. Between the shed and the cabin we had nearly forty nests, each potentially with a mom ready to drop four or five eggs. That could add up to 200 swallows with who knows how many bloodsucking bedbugs. Not to mention all the bird poop that would soon ensconce our treasured homestead like fecal frosting.
And so that’s how it came to be that on one fateful morning while watering the flowers, I switched the nozzle’s dial from “shower” to “jet” and pointed it upward. I’ll sacrifice the shed, I thought. But I’m taking back my home.