On instinct

There was a short piece on the main editorial page of the New York Times (Sept 3, 2013) called “Empty Barn-Rafters” that discussed the recent departure of one man’s barn swallows. I have swallows as well which live on my back porch during the spring and early summer. They work tirelessly to build their nest on top of the large round thermometer which hangs just inside the overhang which shades the back porch. After they have built their nest, they proceed to raise a couple of broods of chicks. By the time the second group fledge towards the end of June, they are tired–pooped out, literally. I would know because I’m the guy who cleans up the poop.They spend the rest of summer eating and playing, swooping across the summer sky, defying the laws of physics, hanging in the air, sitting on the power lines, contemplating the world from their high perches. Yet, as the Times writer so apply described, at some point in the late summer, they just up and leave all at once–no stragglers allowed. Of course, we describe swallow behavior, their nest building, the fledging of their young, their migration habits, as instinct, mostly because we understand so little about the actual mechanisms which drive them to be swallows. Ornithologists have their theories and hypothesis about how the birds do what they do, but I prefer to simply think of them as neighbors, not the subjects of my latest study. People have neighbors, and sometimes those neighbors are not the two-legged variety. The swallows that nest on my porch don’t talk to me, but they do keep me company from about mid-March to about the end of August, but then one afternoon they just simply aren’t there–the editorialist got it exactly right. My back porch is now empty. When this happens, as it must each year, I take down the used nest, wash away the mud and eliminate all traces that the birds have been here, but not because I mind their presence, but because the empty nest reminds me that my bird neighbors are off to their winter roosts in Latin America somewhere. I like to imagine that my counterpart in Costa Rica has just noticed that his swallows have returned to winter in his backyard, happy they are back, delighted to see those sleek, dark forms sliding across the sky. I am sure that there is some absolutely logical and sensible reason which explains how the swallows know when to leave. At some point each summer, they get together, discuss a departure day, agree on a date, and then leave all together, leaving my porch and yard a very empty place. Since I travel a great deal, gone for extended periods, I cannot have my own domestic pets, so I allow my swallows a bit of space to nest and live. I know summer is over when their small, sleek forms are just gone. A quiet falls over the place, the pigeons, the grackles, the cardinals, don’t move on, but they don’t really keep me company either–they never get that close. As fall and winter set in during the next few weeks, the waiting begins. About six months from now, they will be back, and on a cool, windy, rainy day in March, a small, sleek, dark figure will flash past my window to let me know that vacation is over, and their work has just begun.