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Swallow Rail was the name my dad gave the farm more than 30 years ago. He wanted it to be relevant, reflecting the spatial and natural qualities of his 18 acres in Western Shelby County. His inspiration came from the swallows that swoop and swerve so adeptly in open fields, catching insects on the fly. The rail of Swallow Rail comes from the two railroad tracks that flank either end of the road.
The name he chose remains as true today as it did 30 years ago, almost more. The swallows still fly, and the trains still run. We value our swallows, and it is remarkable how the population has rebounded from the years after daddy died and before the barn was opened back up for active use.
For five years, it was mostly closed, storing a smattering of equipment. For more than five years now, it has been opened at both ends at daybreak to release the hens and closed at nightfall to protect them. This time of the year we must also honor the swallows’ timing as they return to their nests for the night.
They fly about in rapid movement. Sometimes I flinch because they come so close and at such great speed. If they were bats catching insects, I would be uneasy, but because they are the swallows I feel a sense of comfortable familiarity and that they belong here more than anyone else. They are doing what they do best out there in the field catching insects on the fly. They know exactly how to manipulate their bodies to move this way or that. Tail forked, pointed or fanned, wings outstretched or pulled close to their bodies, their flight truly is an aerial acrobat.
Swallows are one of the few birds that are entirely insectivores and they have all the moves to catch as many insects as possible.
The barn swallow is the only swallow that has a “swallow tail,” a term that has come to mean deeply forked. The colorations also make this bird easily identifiable (which is helpful to me because I am not a very good birder). As they jet through the air, you can catch glimpses of their blue-black back. The underside is buff-colored to cinnamon with a slightly darker throat; and then, of course, that amazing forked tail.
The barn swallow is most common, but there are others including the tree swallow that has entirely white under parts; the cliff swallow has a rust-colored rump and a squared tail; the bank swallow is marked by its brown back and dark band that runs across its otherwise white breast; and the much desired purple martin, the largest of the swallows, has an entirely blue-black body.
To date we have about a dozen families nesting in the barn this year. They swoop in one door and out the other end or perch a while on the rafters as they prepare their nests or tend to their babies.
I am watching three glean in flight just outside the window now, in the late morning. Later this afternoon they will perch on a utility line above an open field and pond before they take their last flight for the day.
We so often don’t take the quiet time to simply sit and observe. Watching the swallows — or any other species for that matter — reinforces the reality that there is an extraordinary balance in the natural world. I do not need to put out a hummingbird feeder full of sugar water if I let the native wild flowers grow on the dam. The grove of catalpas in the middle of the back field makes it a perfect place for my little Eastern King Bird who watches from her perch for an insect meal. Her tail fans out and she shows off the unmistakable white band that allowed me to identify her.
I am often mesmerized by her moves because she hovers just above the grass with her wings outstretched, fluttering like a heavy butterfly or a papery puppet on a string, until she goes in for the snatch.
And, those amazing swallows that are worth keeping the barn doors open for.