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May 2, 2013

Swallow talk and bluebird vigilance

Cooperstown Crier

---- — I assume the swallows have returned to Capistrano. They have returned to Hawthorn Hill as well.

Fortunately, their numbers are fewer here so we are afforded a daily opportunity to get to know one another – at least during the breeding season. As I write, one pair has taken up residence in a nest box a few feet from the entrance to our upper garden. Since it overlooks the path I take to the hen house and newspaper box every morning, we have become comfortably acclimated to one another. In many respects I find developing a relationship with a pair of swallows less daunting than is often the case with my fellow creatures. I attribute that to the absence of talk. I respect their space and they return the favor. The only times they get a bit antsy, even aggressive, is when the little ones have arrived.

Their anxiety decreases over the course of a few days when they figure I am not much of a threat. Despite being an avid bird watcher and someone who finds appreciating their existence both spiritually and philosophically informative, I have always resisted the temptation to intrude on their interior space. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes eloquently about the nature of space, especially the importance of not violating its sanctity. Swallows and humans get on nicely when they recognize the sanctity of space and the necessity of maintaining its integrity. We find ourselves in the pickle we’re in (actually we are swimming about in a sea of pickles!) because we do not value or understand the interrelationship between freedom and the obligations that freedom requires.

We put up nest boxes all over the place so that our summer visitors have a comfy place to hang out, breed, raise their young and take advantage of the recreational activities that a summer spa such as ours has to offer. The swallows have already picked their spots. A pair of bluebirds has been hanging around the last few days, always wary of the swallows and seemingly going out of their way to keep to themselves. They fly from tree branch to fence post top checking out the grass bound insect supply, every once in a while swooping down from their perch to pick off an unwitting morsel. I envy their lunch budget, as well as their eclectic taste. There is something to be said for making do with what is available. Birds are true locavores, local eaters. It is not a term I like, but it does the job.

In my morning jaunts, and when working about the place, my interactions with bluebirds are rare and conducted at a safe distance. We eye one another with suspicious respect. If I could read father bluebird’s mind, I would like to think he appreciates our hospitality and values the extent to which we allow him to conduct his summer family life with as little interruption as possible. I also continue to be fascinated with bluebird courtship rituals, especially the male’s mate attraction practice of pretending to build a nest. It appears that no self-respecting female bluebird would allow a male the privilege of interior design. If she approves of his choice she then takes control of the space they will occupy for the sole purpose of raising their young. He helps with food gathering and stands guard over their territory. Otherwise, she is in charge.

It reminds me of a recent occurrence in our nest. I decided one morning to make our bed since it occurred to me I had been pretty neglectful of that particular morning ritual. About three weeks later I was informed that while my efforts were appreciated, I should cease and desist immediately. It turns out that I do not know how to make a “proper” bed. The details are unimportant. Having made my own bed for many years, I figured I had a handle on that chore. I realized after we disagreed on the correct way to make and tuck in a hospital corner that my bed making days were over. Who knows if there is a female bed-making gene. I never thought so. Now that I have watched so many different species of birds go about the business of setting up shop, it appears that females have the edge in that category. There are a few species that allow for male nest building, but they are rare. Who knows what evolutionary quirk kicked that into being.

The philosopher Marcus Aurelius suggests that finding contentment in life involves accepting who you are and living in a way that is true to one’s nature. Our avian summer residents are as true to their natures as any living things can be. It is a way of being worth emulating. Less talk. More respect for one another’s space. And most importantly, living one’s life in recognition of the necessity of sharing mutual space responsibly – and not selfishly.