Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Swallows

The swallows are still raising a brood in the garage. They're very noisy. As their cohorts sing on the wires outside, the nesting birds sing from inside the dark, corrugated iron structure. They are in a frenzy, a kind of urgent ecstasy - we are going, we are going, hurry, hurry, it is starting...



One brood fledged a few days ago. We always know, because generally one or two of them at some point will fly into the French windows. When other kinds of birds do this, which is happily quite rare, it is often with a heavy thwack, so that they fall stunned to the ground or flutter off disoriented, but the swallows seem to do it lightly, bounce off and continue their flight untroubled.


Sometimes we have a house sparrow come down the chimney, usually a young one. We had some mesh put around the vent to prevent this, but it must have a gap, as they still get through now and then. The fireplace has glass doors; I hear them on their way down, then moments later see them fluttering in the hearth. We open the door and window to outside, then open the fire doors, and when the bird sees the daylight, it usually flies straight out, scattering a bit of ash and soot around the room on the way. Once, before the mesh, we had a starling down, very fierce and strong and angry.

On Sunday morning, I heard the telltale palpitations from higher up the flue, but no bird appeared, and I gave up waiting for it. Several hours later, there was a bird in the hearth, though I had difficulty seeing it. We opened the door and windows, then Tom opened the fireplace doors, and a swallow darted out.

It hovered about the ceiling; its initial impulse seemed to be to fly upward. We stood astonished, hands raised, holding our breath. It perched a moment or two on top of the door, as if considering its position, then it wheeled round the room and out of the window. We turned to each other, wide-eyed and smiling; we felt as if we had been granted a visitation.

The trip to Africa is, probably for most of them, a death sentence. It seems wasteful of energy for the birds to breed so late, so that both young and parents are weakened before they even start. And though they seem to survive unscathed, even the shock of colliding with a window or spending several hours down a chimney may ultimately prove fatal. Yet nature doesn't care much to husband the strength and energy of the individual, but is profligate, or generous, given the chance, as well as cruel. A weakened surplus serves to feed other species, though it's hard to see how these tiny starved corpses, drying out and blowing away as dust in the winds of the Sahara, nourish anything, except perhaps a melancholy human imagination.

We were talking about some foxes we'd seen, and our friend E said, rather wishfully, "I think they have a happy life, those wild animals, living naturally like that..."



No, I demurred, no wild creature has a happy life. Fear, hunger, pain, parasites are all a normal part of their existence; predators may be a little better off than prey, but not much. But, then again, neither do they think about whether they have a happy life or not. Happiness, as such, like profligacy, generosity, or cruelty, is the preserve of human beings, and perhaps their neotonised and dependent attendant species.

And yet, and yet. Without that unclear concept and uncertain blessing called consciousness, it seems to me that birds at least do experience, if only as the other side of fear and pain, a fierce and unalloyed joy, which has nothing to do with happiness, or what the past has visited on them, or what the future holds. And for me, when I watch them, momentarily they have the power to lift me out of the clinging to happiness, and the fear of losing it, which is part of my human lot.


Bon voyage, swallows!

13 comments:

Rouchswalwe said...

Oh my ... you've outdone yourself, Lucy ~ rich prose spiced with a bit of humour and pathos both. We've still got hummingbirds here and the goldfinches stay and stay. Yes, the hearts of migratory birds are among the most powerful in the animal kingdom. Bon Voyage and safe return, little ones!

christopher said...

I loved the differences between the young swallows and the starling. Isn't that just the way of things?

James said...

I love this. I completely agree about the way that watching birds can take us out of ourselves if only for a moment. I also worry for our late swallows and the hummingbirds that fly over the Gulf of Mexico each year. Maybe worry's not the right word. They do what they do. Unimaginable as it may be.

Granny J said...

Tis the ravens who appear to really enjoy circling and gliding on a windy day. They seem very aware of what they are doing.

Crafty Green Poet said...

I love swallows, I wish them bon voyage as well! Lovely post and photos. Have you read 'Just One Swallow' by Horatio Clare?

... if you're in France, aren't all your windows French?

Clare said...

I like to watch swifts -- they always look like they're showing off (but I'm sure really, they are frantically trying to shovel in as many insects as their tiny bellies will hold).

Your post reminded me, somehow of the opening of this chapter of Wind in the Willows.

Barrett Bonden said...

Yet another middle-class burden - the ownership of French windows. The sound of a sparrow hitting them is unmistakable, a twanging thump. A few months ago I heard the signal and found a sparrow lying on its back, its legs erect, utterly symmetrical. A quick shiver and that, alas, was that. More recently there was a happier outcome; this time the sparrow was right side up and appeared to be crouching, its wings outspread. I feared the worst when its eyes briefly closed but, thank goodness, it was a case of réculer pour mieux sauter. Its brains finally de-addled, it flew off. The RSPB has some recommendations about preventing this but, fearing an anti-human solution, I have not checked it out.

Swallows are like dolphins - it's impossible to watch them and not indulge in the grossest anthropomorphism. Those that swooped over the villa pool in France this summer, flicking the surface of the water with their wings, had to be happy. Or showing off. What I'm really saying is that they made us happy - a vicarious or indirect anthropomorphism.

Plutarch said...

In the first photograph the swallows and the telephonel lines seem to compose a musical notation.

In Spain, a few weeks later than now, I have seen swallows arrive and stay for a while as though taking leave of Europe on their way south. Once when I was swimming in a calm sea before breakfast they swooped and fluttered around me catching insects over the water.

Isabelle said...

I'm catching up on blogs and have just read your bloggery post and LOVED it. I so agree with much of what you say. I can get quite evangelical with friends who clearly think that blogging is trivial and silly - but I do think it fills a need in people who love to write, and in some cases photograph, and - and communicate.

And we all love comments, don't we? I too check to find them and feel slightly sad if there aren't many.

Lucy said...

Thanks all.

The garage brood have flown now, and there are even more on the wires. I realise now, they always face south!

marly said...

Lovely arabesques of the swallows! It is hard to believe that birds don't feel joy: a mockingbird caroling up the dawn is a wondrous thing.

Suse said...

We have little Welcome Swallows who live in a mud nest outside our laundry door. Last week I heard a familiar chirping and realised they had returned for this year's season. Apparently it's the same pair who come each year, according to my bird guide.

ps. I read your bloggery post with great interest, and much appreciative nodding.

Dale said...

Oh, I completely trust my intuitions about the emotions of animals -- those with limbic brains, anyway, designed for communicating emotions (mammals and birds): we're so similar in our emotions and ways of expressing them that I think it's if anything's anthropocentric, it's assuming that our brains are so very special that reading other animals' emotions must be anthropomorphizing. So far as I can tell our emotional lives are pretty much alike. I trust that swallows enjoy swooping in the air very much like I enjoy swooping down a hill on my bike. Why wouldn't they? That part of their brain is very like that part of ours. The burden of proof isn't on my side, I think. Prove to me that a raven dropping a stick and catching it in air *isn't* having a blast!