Beth Girdler: Doing It Naturally
Beth Girdler
Beth Girdler
is a naturalist based in Ayer's Cliff, Quebec.

Her previous columns are archived HERE.

Posted 05.07.01
Ayer's Cliff, Quebec


If I had the wings of an angel

While on a long drive, we were (as usual) watching birds out the car window. My son, after considerable thought, exclaimed, "If I were an angel, I'd have wings from my wrists to my hips so I could fly everywhere and see the views of the world."

His desire to fly echoes the wish of many. I for one certainly share his dream. When watching ravens cavort in the blue or turkey vultures spiral overhead on unseen thermals, I wonder what it would be like to have wings.

Of all the birds I know, watching the flight of swallows gives me the most joy. The elegant way they dip and dive, feeding on insects, swooping to skim sips of water from a river, lake, or even a puddle, the way they bank, veer toward the heavens, flutter and dive again - leads me to believe that owning a pair of wings would be wonderful.

The swallow family, the Hirundinidae, are small birds, around 5 to 6 inches from beak to tail, that are built for speed and for feeding in flight. Their bills are short and flat but their mouths open wide, practically from eye to eye - all the better to nab the unsuspecting insects they feed on, including mosquitoes, black, deerflies and horseflies.

Their streamlined body shape is a beautiful example of aerodynamic design. Slim with short necks, long forked tails and feet located well back on the body, all of a swallow's features reflect a life spent, for the most part, in the air.

Swallows have relatively small, swept-back wings akin to those of high-speed jets. The wings are flat in profile (low camber), long, slender, and pointed at the tips. This type of wing can be flapped rapidly to quickly build speed and the flat, tapered shape minimizes drag. Sharing this wing form are swifts and falcons - the gold medal speedsters of the bird world.

As well as zipping along on high-powered flights, swallows will take advantage of thermals and often appear as tiny specks way up in the sky. Now that the ground is dryer, try lying on your back out on the lawn while scanning the sky with a pair of binoculars. Look past the clouds drifting by and see if you don't spot a few swallows up higher than you would normally look for them. Listen carefully: you may even catch the far off liquid twittering they make as they fly.

Six swallow species breed in Quebec: barn, tree, cliff, bank and Northern rough-winged swallows as well as purple martins all grace our open areas. All are insectivores and help keep insect populations in check.

Barn and tree swallows are the most commonly observed species. The mud nests of barn swallows, under the eaves and along the beams of barns, boathouses and outbuildings, should be a welcome site for anyone. I read that when making a nest, a pair of barn swallows may gather as many as a thousand mouthfuls of mud.

Much more effective and energy efficient than any bug-zapper, and far more beautiful to look at with their iridescent blue and rust coloration, barn swallows will consume huge quantities of insects during their stay. They will aggressively defend their nest site, swooping down inches from your head if you get too close. But don't worry, they never really make contact.

The gorgeous iridescent greeny-blue back, and contrasting white underside of the tree swallow is always impressive. Tree swallows can be found in a variety of locations, usually not far from water. Nesting in the wild in natural tree cavities or old woodpecker excavations, these swallows adapt well to manmade nest boxes. If you live near an open space and have seen these birds in your neighborhood, why not try housing a pair? The nest boxes are easy to build, with design suggestions to be had in many books on birds. Just make sure you make the hole 1.5" in diameter. Any larger and you may be inviting a pair of starlings to nest instead. If you are thinking of attracting tree swallows get those boxes up soon; they are back and looking for potential nest sites now.

When my son gets home from school today, I think I'll take him out to look at the swallows flying over the fairgrounds. I'll ask him if he'd like to see "views of the world" on wings like those.