A Safe Place For Struggling Swallows

It had rained a great deal on our green island off the west coast of Canada, and the grass demanded cutting more than once a week. But before I could haul out the lawn mower, I heard a faint chirping and, looking down, spotted a small, hairless baby bird wriggling helplessly in the spiky turf.

''Oh no,'' I thought, glancing up at the birdhouse atop the fence pole nearby. I knelt to get a better look at the foundling, only to spot another baby bird, and another, and another -- till I'd discovered five nestlings on the ground.

As I called my husband to come quickly, I noticed a cat crouched beneath the fir tree. A common house sparrow, cheeping furiously, was hopping up and down on the birdhouse roof.

Several weeks ago, a pair of violet-green swallows returned from their winter haven and took up residence in our little white birdhouse. ''Were these ugly foundlings swallows?'' I wondered, for their immature wings were a graceful ''V'' shape, characteristic of their parents in full flight.

My husband joined me; and looking up, we saw two swallows circling high above. I wondered if they knew where their children were -- and guessed they did. Judging from the number of feathers on the ground, there had been a scuffle.

Watchful, we called a private shelter on the island that accepts injured or abandoned birds and animals. Maybe they'd know what to do. No answer. I left a message and my number.

I was unaccustomed to the wave of anxious thoughts that gripped me at the plight of these youngsters. If we picked them up and put them back in the nest, would their parents come back and care for them? What if they abandoned them? I couldn't imagine catching enough bugs to support them.

So we took the birdhouse down from its pole and, fashioning a scoop out of a cardboard paper towel roll, gently picked up each squirming baby bird and fitted it through the hole of the house. We reattached the house to the pole and waited, hoping the parents would return.

Then suddenly the noisy house sparrow poked his head in at the door of the birdhouse and began tossing babies out!

We dashed to the fence, waving our arms and shouting. As we replaced the baby birds, we quickly made crude, inaccurate slingshots to fire paper wads at the house sparrow every time he and his mate returned. Then we waited until the moment we had hoped for occurred: The swallow parents returned. In and out the parents flew, gathering bugs and filling their babies' bellies.

We defended the house from the irate sparrows who ceaselessly tried to take over.

Because the roof of the birdhouse was nailed shut, years of nesting material had built up inside. We knew the baby birds were close to the entry, close enough to be picked up and tossed out by the sparrows. We thought it intelligent to open the house and remove some of the nesting material. We timed it for when both parents were out, and with wrecking bar and hammer in hand, we pried open the lid.

''Oh my goodness,'' cried my husband as he lifted the lid. ''The mother or father's still in here!''

The box was a mess, with nesting material everywhere. Two of the babies were sprawled near the entrance; and there was the mama or papa in the corner with wings outstretched protectively over the other three chicks. The parent never moved as we pulled out some of the dry grass, laid the other two babies near, rewired the lid closed, and put the house back on its pole.

We stayed on guard till the sun set and all bird life retired for the night. Only then did it feel safe to relinquish our post and turn in for the night ourselves.

By 9 a.m., we'd phoned a bird-and-nature store and spoken to the owner who told us all we needed to know. Yes, he said, competition for nesting sites is often fierce; the house sparrows were likely ready to raise their second brood of the summer and wanted the swallows' nesting box.

The solution, he explained, lies in the size of the opening to the birdhouse. Swallows are more oval in shape than sparrows, and whereas an adult swallow can fit through a hole 1 inch high by 1-1/4 inch wide, sparrows need another 1/4 inch at the top. So we made a plate from 1/4-inch plywood, with a hole of proper size and shape, and tacked this over the original hole.

It worked. No longer could the house sparrows fit into the nesting box, although they tried and tried.

In a mere three weeks, the babies were full grown, and we had the pleasure of seeing two of the five wriggle through the tight hole and wing into the sky to join their parents and siblings.

It was a season of spectacle and understanding to be repeated (with the proper-sized front door) simply and naturally, summer after summer in the little white house on the fence in our backyard.

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