The Swallows and the Wrens.

IN the middle of July, 1914, I noticed some mud on the doorstep for two or three mornings in succession. Then, looking up, I saw that some was plastered against a cemented beam which supported the front of the verandah. Evidently the swallows were at work. I had seen them in the Glen but never before had they come to the house, and I was curious to note whether they would succeed in building their nest. It looked as ifthe small pellets of mud would not stick on the smooth cement. From a little distance off in the garden I was able to watch the birds flying in and out, and, on the afternoon of the 20th July, I found that they had given up their first-chosen site and taken a better position close to it. Through the verandah came a rain-spout against the wall of the house ; it had a bend in it about twelve inches long bringing it to the corner made with the bay window, leaving a little space from the top of the bent pipe to the ceiling, of five inches at one end and six inches at the other. Here our feathered masons were at work over their neat little structure, and, though at first some mud fell through the slight gap between the pipe and the wall, most of it remained in position, so that by the evening a platform had been formed on the top of the bent pipe at its higher end, where the nest would be supported on one side by the upward turn of the pipe and attached to the wall at the back. Next day the nest was finished, the outside edge projected just beyond the pipe and four inches from the wall, and the top of it was two and a half inches from the ceiling, so that it was impossible to see into it. It seemed rather late in the year and may perhaps have been a second nest ; we wondered whether the young birds would be out in time to fly away with their fellows,or, whether the parent birds would stay behind to start them on their long journey to the South. As it was the first time for a nest to be made here, I was anxious not to disturb or frighten them and so did not try to see how many eggs were laid or when the young birds were hatched.

Some time in August we could hear them crying when the old bird brought them food, and, in time, we could see their little black heads above the edge of the nest,their widely opened bills and bright orange-coloured throats. There were four of them and, as we watched from day to day, it seemed that one was weaker than the others. I noticed that when the parent bird came to feed them the other three seemed to get more than their share, pushing the weakling to one side. In the first week of September they used to sit up on the edge of the nest and made a pretty picture which I wish I had been artist enough to paint. On the 9th they were out of the nest and resting by the side of it on the bend of the pipe, but they all got in again in the evening. The next morning by half-past nine quite a flock of swallows had assembled and were flying about, twittering in a state of intense excitement for perhaps ten minutes. My sister went to see the cause of the disturbance, when, all of a sudden, our four little ones were out and away, surrounded and shielded by the whole flock, till, wheeling round, they alighted on an adjoining roof. In about half an hour they were on the wing again, the old birds,— not the parents alone, flying beside and underneath to help and encourage the young, and, escorting them back to their home ; and, as I stood a little way off on the lawn, I saw the parent birds one after the other, dart with shrill cries past the verander and finally under it to the nest ; finding that all was safe they returned to the flock and brought their little ones safely in. The following day they were out again, and again a number of old birds came to help and encourage them ; they did not come back till half-past two in the afternoon ; on the twelfth of September, they once more left at half-past nine, returning one by one, at half-past three. This had been a long day for them and no doubt they were tired and for that reason remained at home the whole of the following day, which was a Sunday, being fed as usual by the parent birds. On the fourteenth, for a change they had two flights, from half past-nine to half-past one and again at four o ‘clock, returning, one by one, at five. On the fifteenth they left an hour earlier and at four o’clock three of them were convoyed home by the parent birds, the other coming in later ; they had another short flight from a quarter to five to half-past six. The old birds almost always came first to see that all was safe ; they would dart by the verander screaming in their nervous excitement and when they thought the coast was clear, would settle for a moment on the nest, then fly to the others which were hovering around and after seeing them all safely hack would go off to do a little hunting before finding their own roosting place which, evidently, was not far off; other swallows now began to come around in the evenings as though to see when these little ones would be ready for their journey. On the sixteenth they were out before eight o’clock. The weakly one came back at two and stayed in the nest for a quarter of an hour, quite proud to have it all to its little self. They all came in again at four, but only one got actually into the nest that night.

On the 17th they had a long day out, not coming home till six o'clock when already it was growing dusk. On the 18th I noticed two coming in at six o'clock and could see the others still hawking around for insects. Several old birds were about now each evening but it was quite possible to distinguish our four young ones by their smaller size and weaker flight. When would they be ready to get away ? Would the others have patience to wait for them ? From the 12th, the weather had been growing colder and this of course would affect their insect prey. On the 19th there were showers of sleet, and they came home at six o ‘clock. For the next two evenings there was quite a little flock of swallows about and they seemed to be practising flight and encouraging the young ones. I think they were warning them that it was quite time for the first stage of their long, long flight and that it could not be put off much longer for, they whispered, the Sun is going further away after which the cruel white Winter is coming. Each of these evenings the young birds came back at a quarter-past six to roost on the edge of the nest or the top of the bend of the pipe. None came home on the 22nd and on the 23rd September, there was not a Swallow in the Glen.

Good luck attend you little birds, may you escape the many dangers of the way and be spared to spend your Christmas where Winter is unknown, safely and happily in sunny Africa ! But, come back, swallows, in the Spring ; your nest is awaiting you. How I wish you could tell us all your adventures when you come!

For twelve days therefore our little family were training for their long and trying journey across the continent, taking short flights, each day starting at almost the same hour, hawking insects and flying around for longer and longer periods, always within sight of their home,—for we could see and hear them in and out among the trees near by, and always accompanied, guarded and encouraged by their parents, returning every evening to their nest.

It would no doubt, have been these little flights of the young swallows trying their wings that suggested to our great Victorian Poet the beautiful simile in ‘In Memoriam‘, when he sings of Sorrow,—

‘ Nor does she trust a larger lay,
But rather loosens from the lip
Short swallow-flights of song, that dip
Their wings in tears, and skim away.’

The nest was in such a dry and sheltered place that we felt sure it would keep sound and clean for them if they should care to use it again. But we had not supposed that it would have been kept warm for them by another tenant.

It was at Christmas that I noticed a pair of Wrens hovering about the windows each evening, hunting for insects in the Virginia Creeper, as the blinds were being drawn down, which was then between four and half-past four o ‘clock. Soon I found that they were in occupation of our Swallows’ nest, to which they returned each evening as punctually as possible. Sometimes I noticed three at the window and on one occasion four ; so I suppose the news of the discovery of this snug retreat had spread, but, I think only the one pair actually occupied the nest.

At midnight on the 19th January, I heard a fluttering against the pane and, thinking it might be some belated migrant, I went out and easily caught one of the wrens fluttering like a moth up the glass then falling down to scramble up again. It had perhaps been pushed off its perch on the pipe and in trying to find its way back was dazed and confused by the light ; it appeared to be uninjured and in good plumage, I thought it would be safer in-doors, so I brought it in to roost on the curtain-poles, letting it fly away in the morning.

On the 29th January I found a Wren dead on the doorstep ; this also was in good plumage and showed no hurt or injury ; the weather had not been cold or stormy and suspecting some disease, when I sent it to be mounted as a specimen I asked Mr. Cutmore to hold a post mortem examination. His reply was very interesting. He found the bird, which was a female, was not bruised or damaged in any way but had died from a disease known to aviculturists as 'Bird fever' . The spleen was filled with small tubercies and the liver also affected ; finally there was inflamation of the lungs (septic pneumonia). This condition, Mr. Cutmore added, he had never before seen in a wild bird from the wild state.

Apparently this was not the mate of our Wren in the Swallows’ nest, for next evening I was on the look out and noticed the two birds coming home at five o‘clock. It may perhaps have been the one I rescued at midnight and that adventure in its weakened condition may have hastened its end.

From the 21st February it was six o'clock regularly when they came in, till, on the 7th March it was a quarter past six, and, from the 23rd to the 28th it was seven o'clock. Since that date I have not seen them at the nest but I still see them in the garden and hear their curious call so absurdly loud for such a small bird. No doubt by this time they will have begun to build their own little nest on the other side ofmy garden wall, just above the old mill-race and well screened by tramman, briers, and weeds. Here I hope they may be undisturbed and allowed to bring up a large and healthy brood.


Glen Aldyn.

5th April 1915.


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