Largest Birdhouse In the Rockies

OUR house is built into a hill, so that the second story in front is the first story in back. The ceiling is high, supported by 4- by 12-inch beams, which pass through the upper walls and extend outside, over the second story front porch. Four humans live in the house; me, my wife, and our two daughters, and 17 house plants, one dog, and one cat. The cat lives mostly indoors just now. We tell him that it is only until the fledgling swallows have gained flight skill and the intelligence that comes with some maturity. For a while, they are too clumsy and too uninformed about predators. He can go out once in a while at night, when they are tucked safely into their nests.

The mountain blue birds were the first to use the house in the spring. They repaired the nest of straw they used last year, under the front porch floor, on a support beam that is about 10 feet off the ground. They picked their nest site with intelligence. I watched the cat try again and again to get to the nest, from above, from below, from the nearby steps, and he never got close.

IT was unusually dry here in Colorado last spring and into summer. The only mud available was around the small pond across the driveway from the house. The pond was shared by the horses, donkeys, llamas, coyotes, one pair of wild mallards, and many other animals. The swallows extended that sharing of resources up to the house. They picked up the mud at the pond, flew to where the beams and the roof boards join, and packed it into place, fastening their nests to the underside of the roof and to the beam below the roof. The swallows make a small tube, extending down from the body of the nest, for an entrance.

We have 40 swallow nests attached to the house. The swallows leave a bit of a mess on the porch and on the windows, but we don't mind cleaning it up. It is part of the sharing. They swoop in and out, away from the house and all around the near airspace, catching insects, first for their own food, and then to bring to their hatchlings.

This summer, we have not been at all troubled with insects, and the small amount of work we trade is no bother. What we can clean up into a container, I take to the garden and work into the soil. It is excellent fertilizer and will help improve our crops next summer.

We also share the house with hummingbirds. They nest in nearby trees and come to the feeders hanging from the beams. Two of the feeders hang just outside the windows in front of my desk. The hummingbirds come and go from daylight until dark. They drink while hovering or rest on a perch while they feed.

We had 12 or 15 broad-tailed hummers at the feeders at a time. There were face-offs between them. Whose turn it was was disputed, and one would retreat, straight up, backward, sideways and away in an arc, but it appeared that all were eventually getting food.

Then two pair of rufous hummingbirds moved in. They are smaller than the broad-tailed; a golden red, with gold to red gorget, depending on the angle of the light. The book describes them as very aggressive, and indeed they are. Soon, the two males had complete control of the two feeders on the south side of the house and the one on the west side.

It didn't matter if the rufous weren't interested in feeding just then; they would still guard what had become their food source. Sometimes, one of the males would just sit on the perch, waiting to drive off any intruder. Its nest was in a tree about a hundred feet away, and it also observed from there and came rapidly on its noisier wings if any broad-tailed approached, and drove it away.

WE had put the feeders out and kept them filled for all, but we didn't see very many broad-taileds. I don't know any details about negotiations or changes that came about. I think the broad-taileds decided that the noisy-winged, rapidly approaching bluff would stop a fraction of an inch short of physical contact. The broad-taileds began to come back, and within a few days, there were as many as there had ever been. The rufous made an all-out aggressive effort and then accepted the rules and shared with everybody else.

Fall comes early here, 8,800 feet up in the Rocky Mountains. In a few days, our cat can spend as much time outdoors as he wants. Thirty-seven swallow nests are empty now. The occupants of the last nests are nearly ready to become independent travelers of the air. The bluebirds fledged earliest of all and are seasoned fliers now. Soon, it will be time to take down the hummingbird feeders so that the tiny iridescent birds are not encouraged to stay here beyond their time to fly south. We will clean up the last of the swallows' droppings and wash the windows nearest their nest sites.

IT will be quieter. We will miss the birds, a little, though the season for the elk to begin their daily journey across the ranch begins soon. Now that the summer camp on the grounds is over, we will see more deer and coyotes.

Crows and magpies and some of the hardier small birds will be here all winter. We won't be lonely. But we will be looking forward to sharing our house with wild species again, when winter is almost over, when the first bluebird arrives to tell us spring is coming, the migrating birds return to our house again.

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