If you’ve had the misfortune of entertaining dull or dreary house guests this summer, I send you my commiserations. In comparison, playing host to a pair of Red-rumped swallows has been far from boring. Day after day they have captured our attention tackling the problem of a natural disaster, a murderous intruder and two broods of demanding chicks.
After a long flight from sub-Saharan Africa, they arrived here in the middle of April. Checking out the Loulé hillsides, they selected the first-floor terrace of our house to build their nest. Probably unwise, we thought, to choose a residence that has two cats. What’s more, on such a windy terrace, surely it was folly to use the swaying chain of an outdoor chandelier as an axis for construction!
Nevertheless, these apparently inexperienced builders made a solid cup from globules of mud and saliva that hung down from the ceiling. One side of it clung perilously to the chain as it rocked back and forth like an unsafe baby’s cradle.
Lined with feathers and soft vegetation, the finishing touch – different from all other similar nests – was to build a tunnel with a narrow entry hole ensuring total privacy. Red-rumped swallows mate inside the nest thereby avoiding the possible interference of any unattached male birds.
We predicted some Red-rumped ‘rumpy-pumpy’ would soon commence but, almost immediately after the nest was finished, there was a day and night of thunderstorms and heavy rain. The muddy structure looked ready to collapse but, to their credit, the birds – unlike your average Algarve builder – made immediate repairs.
For a second time their architectural masterpiece was complete when a new, more serious threat appeared in the sky. It was a much larger and presumably older swallow determined to have his way with the female. For several weeks, there were many lengthy aerial chases, the young male bird in combat with the intruder.
By this stage, we were aware that the female had laid her eggs, since she was mostly absent on incubation duties inside the nest. Her partner often stood sentry on the chandelier, letting out alarm calls and battling with the rogue male whenever he appeared. Despite his size and persistence, the younger swallow would fly circles round him and bravely lunge at him over the swimming pool. Our cats, like cartoon cats, looked on in confusion. Red-rumped swallows we concluded are so incredibly acrobatic no domestic feline would be capable of catching them.
Although we could not see the chicks, once a routine of feeding began, we knew the eggs had hatched. Both parents went out on forays searching for airborne insects bringing them back to the nest. Then shock horror – early one evening, while they were both away – I saw the rogue bird slip into the nest emerging with a chick in its beak that it let drop down to the ground. It was quite a mature chick and perfectly feathered but too young to fly. Due to the fall, this lovely little bird was dead. By morning, another dead chick was stuck in the entrance hole of the nest and two more chicks were on the ground.
One of them was still alive and after removing the corpse from the entrance hole, my husband tried to return it to the nest. It was a very precarious task and after almost falling from the stepladder balanced on the edge of the terrace, he was forced to give up. Dead chicks were bad enough but a dead husband, no!
A ‘bird care’ website suggested feeding the chick with a dropper containing watered down cat food. When my husband chirped, the chick would open its mouth and feed but sadly it did not survive.
The parent birds with an empty nest were frantic and showed every sign of suffering bereavement. They were back and forth looking inside the entrance hole presumably in a state of disbelief. The murderer was not seen again.
Six weeks later, we were happy to announce that four beautiful Red-rumped baby swallows emerged from the nest. The parents had successfully reared a second brood. You have never seen a more wonderful sight as one after another they perched on the chandelier, flexed their wings and swept into flight. Every evening, exactly at dusk, the whole family returned to the terrace; the adult birds rounding up their young and ushering them into the nest.
Attentively, the parents would pop their heads in through the entrance hole to check that all were present and correct. Once satisfied, they gave a final chirrup before going off to roost in a nearby tree. At dawn, the parents would reappear ready to recommence their daily routine teaching their young the vital skills of flutter, glide and feed.
After two weeks of family bliss – just as our bird guide had predicted – the chicks did not return. Preparing for the flight south, they are currently roosting in the trees and taking on the habits of adult birds. At the end of September, parents and young will be ready to leave together.
Happily, we’ve read that these intriguing visitors are likely to come back to the same nesting site again next year. They would definitely be very welcome return guests!
By Carolyn Kain
Photos: PETER KAIN