Flying Lessons

Today was one of significance on our Listening Stones Farm. While vacuuming the upstairs bath this morning I happened to look out the window to find a half dozen barn swallows clinging to the roof. At first I didn’t recognize that these were the chicks, if that’s what they’re called. Then the parents came flying in with full cheeks to feed the chicks, which appeared to have been pushed from their nests and were clinging onto the shingles for dear life.

Three swallow chicks await dinner.

Three swallow chicks await dinner.

If you’ve watched little kids on the rim of a pool on their first day of swimming lessons, then you have a reasonable idea of the roof top situation. Ever once in a while, one of the chicks would push off for a short flight, circling around between the distant elm, clothesline, and back to the rooftop where the landing was less than poetic. You might describe it as more awkward than that of a crash landing. Yes, the chicks were getting their first flying lessons.

Another if: If you’ve watched swallows fly, then you know they are acrobatic, athletic and poetic in flight. Same for this most recent generation as they swept through the air with such incredible ease. You could sense the weakness, though, as they would launch themselves into the air and make a couple of circular swoops before coming back to the relative safety of the roof, sometimes actually tumbling in landing. It was frankly a little too humbling to be funny, although had I taken a short video with my cell phone and posted it on Facebook, I’m sure people would have found humor. What happens on the rooftop, however, stays on the rooftop!

Someone is hungry!

Someone is hungry!

Later this evening when Rebecca and I took our standard evening wine on the deck after our work and before going inside to prepare dinner, some of the little ones were perched precariously on the clothesline, preening and awaiting meals. After watching for several moments I came in for the camera. Sure enough one of the parent swallows swept in, braked incredibly and instantly, passed food from beak to beak, then with such beautiful and intricate wing control, swooped off toward the prairie for more insects.

What a fascinating evening. Watching swallows fly is a favored pastime here on the farm. Yes, they dirty the barn and we’ll find droppings on our sheets hanging to dry on the one, yet they more than make up for their messiness with the mesmerizing latent lyrics they write on the prairie sky.

In an instant, with deft wing control, the swallow stops in midair, feeds the young, then as quickly, flies off.

In an instant, with deft wing control, the swallow stops in midair, feeds the young, then as quickly, flies off.

Off for another flight over the prairie.

One of the entertaining rituals happens after letting the cats outside, when the swallows dive bomb the cats as they cross the lawn. Our little hunter, Olive, can’t resist the occasional yet deadly serious flip and leap at the diving birds. So far she has come up completely empty. On the other hand, Silver just is too cool to be bothered. As the birds swoop in he just saunters along as if nothing is happening, seemingly in a world all his own.

Last year he wasn’t so calm. Same with Olive, who would simply try find safety in the grass as the swallows came in from several directions. It was their first year on the farm and the diving swallows bothered them both, and especially bothered was my son, Aaron’s, cat. Those swallows seemed to sense the differences between the cats. Poor Finnegan, who was both old and apparently quite sick, the swallows would come close enough to have pulled fur if they so wished. Not so with the other, younger cats. Now a year older, and with Finnegan in what we call “a better place,” the swallows will come decidedly closer to the cool Silver, yet keep a respectful distance with the little hunter.

It’s hard to say how much longer we’ll have the swallow chicks holding close to the porch top and clothesline. Size wise, mistaking a chick with a full grown parent is already difficult. Some of the difference is in the plumage, and with the nearly constant preening, that will change quickly. The little ones are just as adept at the acrobatic flight as their parents already, although they can’t stay aloft as long. As they gain strength and more mature plumage, our “edge of the pool” sightings will quickly come to an end.

Swallow flight is one of the joys of living on the farm.

Swallow flight is one of the joys of living on the farm.

Swallows are fun to watch regardless. I’ve often said I’d love to soar like one of the white pelicans we see around here almost daily. As comely as they are on land, in flight white pelicans have few rivals And, after years of watching the dives of night hawks in the cities where I’ve lived, I’ve also dreamed of what it must be like to do a complete free fall of such blinding speed, yet with the dexterity to suddenly sweep back toward the heavens. But, like I was telling Rebecca just a few nights ago, I’d just once like to transpose myself into the body of a swallow for a quick flight around the farm. For overall beauty and control of flight, I cannot think of another bird that comes close to such perfection.

As I looked out on the rooftop this morning, watching the little ones making their first flights, I couldn’t help being envious. They were just days away from having that endless and seemingly flawless and acrobatic ability to fly.

Just once. Just once to have such freedom of maneuverability and poetry. Just once.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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