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  • Writer's pictureKen Campbell

Swallows Depart

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

Living on the farm is all about seasons. As everywhere, seasons dictate the chores to be done, the pace of life, the food we eat, etc. The obvious dramatic changes that mark the changing seasons, i.e., in the spring (the warming temperatures, lengthening days, greening and flowering of plants) and in the fall (the cooling temperatures, shortening days, and changing leaf color), are available for everybody’s notice wherever they may be. But on the farm, the seasonal effects are more emphatic with bigger impacts on the residents than the impacts they have on people living elsewhere. Also, on the farm, there are, in amongst these pronounced changes, a myriad of quieter, more subtle changes that present for special notice.

One of these subtle changes is the coming-and-going of swallows. The arrival of swallows is an advent of spring that was made famous by the annual celebration of the arrival of these birds at mission San Juan Capistrano in Southern California. But swallows come and go regularly at other places too and here on the farm, we host a sizable colony of these migrants at our barn every spring and summer.

Actually, I have identified four species of swallows at the farm: Tree swallows, Violet-green swallows, Cliff swallows, and Barn swallows. I can routinely identify only the Barn swallows because they alone have unique forked tails and an intimate association with the barn where they build their nests. Only irregularly do I detect enough coloration and body shape to identify any of the other three species – what I normally see is marvelous acrobatic shapes of all the species darting about over the pasture and around the house as they capture insects in the air. Sometimes the swallows perch in a line along the fence or on the power lines and then, in good light, I can detect plumage colors and determine species identity.

Each species keeps its own schedule; Tree swallows are the first to arrive in the spring and Barn swallows are the last to leave in the fall. An interesting thing about swallows is that unless you are attentively looking for them, you don’t notice their arrival or departure. By happenstance, on one day in the spring, you look up and there they are darting around and by happenstance, on one day in the fall you look up and they aren’t there anymore. They come and go without any fanfare.

Departure is more inauspicious than arrival. I have never really pinpointed the time at which the swallows departed. However, last Friday evening (September 3rd), as Jean and I stood on the porch looking over the pasture, I said

Jean, the swallows are gone! They were here this morning but, this evening, they are nowhere to be seen.

Indeed, they were gone.

It was the Barn swallows that left on September 3rd. The other species must have departed earlier because after the Barn swallows left, there were no other swallows remaining to ply the sky. The others slipped away without my notice. But I prided myself on at least detecting the very day that the Barn swallows left. Now, I can mark the calendar accordingly.


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