Every year barn swallows make their nests in the rafters of our barn. Usually there are two pairs. The first, and likely older, more experienced pair raised a nice brood in the nest they made several years ago, attached to a rafter about a foot below the ceiling. The babies are grown and the family has left the area. The second pair built their nest of mud, moss, chicken feathers and horse hair on a rafter so that it sat only six inches or so below the metal roof.
The last few days have been scorchers with temperatures in the mid-90sF. On the second day of the heat wave, Friday, my husband found a baby swallow on the barn floor. We got a ladder, I climbed up and put the little one back with its siblings. I counted five or six babies without getting too close. Their heads were drooping down out of the nest and they were panting. It was so hot up under that roof with the midday sun blazing down.
The next day everyone was in the nest and seemed fine. It was another very hot day and we went away to the lake. That evening the nest was still full. Then yesterday morning, with temperatures once again in the mid 90sF, I went to check and see if any babies had fallen from the nest. Disaster. I found three dead babies on the floor and two on death’s doorstep. If there was a sixth one, I never saw it. Apparently the little ones had thrown themselves from the nest because it was just too hot. The parents were not around.
I gathered up the dead babies for burial, so sad. They were already well feathered, maybe 10-12 days old. The two living birds could not lift their heads or make a sound. I took down the death nest, put it in an old stainless dog bowl, popped the babies in and carried them in the house.
One bird was more aware than the other. I carefully opened both beaks and dribbled in water with a pipette. The alert one drank right away. The bad-off one made some weak swallowing motions, but much of the liquid dribbled back out. By this time baby one was making little beeping sounds. I covered the babies with some downy chicken feathers from the nest, put the bowl in a box to keep the birds warm and went in search of bugs.
Here on the farm, we have a plentiful supply of insects, especially the biting kind. I quickly discovered that when you need to catch a bunch of bugs, they are easy to see, but hard to grab. Finally I went out to where the horses were grazing. Soon I had a good supply of deer flies, horse flies and face flies.
More than half-an-hour had elapsed since I’d left the babies. They were more alert. The stronger one was gaping its mouth for food as soon as it heard me. The other one could at least lift its head. To open the mouth of the weak bird, I very gently pressed on both corners of the beak until it opened wide enough to fit the pipette tip. Soon it was swallowing well and I started feeding it insects, too. I began playing parent bird, catching flying insects and pushing them in gaping mouths. After a few mouthfuls, the little birds wriggled their hind ends over the edge of the nest to defecate. Then I knew they were fully hydrated.
I caught several dozen bugs that were flying around the horses. It took thirty minutes to get eight or ten insects. Those patient horses saw so much of me they started ignoring me as I came across the field to them with my fish net for trapping flies and tin can for holding them.
Between hourly feedings, I left the babies to rest in their box. As soon as they heard me coming, the babies would start in with their little beeping cries and mouths wide open for food. All afternoon and evening through the ninety degree heat I caught and fed bugs. I developed a true understanding of what parent barn swallows have to do. By night time, both babies were quite strong and taking food and water well. They only ate a few bugs and a sip of water at each feeding before falling fast asleep. The cats were fascinated by the babies’ cries, of course. Cary in particular wanted to see all about what was going on.
After it got dark and I couldn’t catch flies, I rehydrated some of the freeze-dried mealworms I keep for the chickens. Dipping them in plain yogurt made them more nutritious, and the birds gobbled them right up. Finally at 10:30 I tucked the babies away for the night.
This morning the little swallows were hungry at five and ate several good feedings of mealworms in yogurt chased down with water before nine o’clock. They were both raising their heads and begging for food. We had noticed the parent birds hanging around so I decided to try reintroducing the babies. I made a little shelf on a rafter about two feet from the old nest site that was a foot below the ceiling with a wood board above it to protect from the hot roof. Then I set the bowl with the nest on the rafter and duct taped it to the wood to make sure it was secure.
I hid around the corner, watching to see if the adults would find the babies. They flew in the barn in no time. As soon as the little ones heard their parents, they started beeping. The chorus of warbles and chirps that came from the adults was a sound to warm any parent’s heart. The swallows were so excited and overjoyed to hear their babies. Quickly, they found the new nest spot. They scoped it out carefully, then mama bird scooted in to see the babies, followed by papa. What a racket! They were one happy family.