As an English major, I had favorite poems. At the top of the list was John Keats’ “To Autumn.” I love the whole poem but it is the final line that always makes me gulp: “…And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.” Clearly it is not autumn yet – we are only officially halfway through summer – but the gathering, twittering swallows already foreshadow coming changes. And that line of Keats always makes me wistful about summer’s passing.
One of the most common of the swallow species is the barn swallow. In fact, it is the most widespread swallow on the globe. While barn swallows have been present in the Barrington countryside since May and even earlier, they now gather with their young on utility wires, fences, and dead tree branches or, as Keats observed, in the skies. They are among the bird world’s most graceful fliers, flitting and swooping and carving graceful arcs above fields and ponds and lakes as they hawk insects.
The barn swallow is quite easy to identify, even in motion and even in silhouette. It is the only one of the local swallows (six species in all) that has a deeply forked tail. All swallows are difficult to follow with binoculars; they are almost always in motion and rarely is that motion in a straight line. But if you spot a smallish, graceful, streamlined bird constantly swooping and skimming just above the ground or water, and you see that it has a forked tail, it’s sure to be a barn swallow.
If you get a closer look – which is often possible at this time of year when the adults perch with their fledglings – you will see that the barn swallow is handsome with glossy, cobalt blue feathers on its head and back, and tawny feathers below. The forehead and throat are cinnamon. The male and female have similar color patterns though the male’s colors are more intense.
True to its name, the barn swallow has an affinity for barns and other open structures. It likes to have a roof over its nest. The nest is a marvel of avian architecture: a half bowl of dried dabs of mud strengthened with grass and affixed to a barn beam or porch joist or girder under a bridge. I love watching barn swallows in the spring, gathered at mud puddles or the edge of a pond to pick up beakfuls of mud to begin or add to their nests. I often wonder how may trips it takes to complete a nest – well over 100, I’d guess.
It will not be long before the barn swallows cease their pond and field skimming and head south to Central and South America for the winter. Until they do, watch for swallows gathering and twittering in the skies.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in District 220 and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington.
Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, she taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands.
Wendy is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
She and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.
For more information about a cause close to Wendy’s heart here in Barrington, visit CitizensForConservation.org.
Wendy is also a regular contributor at 365Barrington.com sharing profiles of birds found in the Barrington area. CLICK HERE to read all of Wendy’s posts published in our Birds of Barrington series and watch for her next contribution which will be published early next month.
Do you have a question about birds you’ve seen in Barrington? Just enter you question in the comments box for this post and we’ll ask Wendy!
John Keats, 1795 – 1821
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.