Who knew a 10 gram violet-green swallow could enslave a human for 18 days. It was not a conscious decision to give up my freedom to care for this gaping maw? There was no getting him back into the nest in the neighbour’s roof. His siblings died in the heatwave, but Chipikins abandoned ship, hoping for a better fate.
I brought home the barely feathered swallow only so he could die more comfortably than in the dust and sun. I meant to put him on moss in shade. I was too busy for this responsibility. I have fostered birds in need before, so I have a mealworm colony for such occasions. This was the fatal error. I should not have fed him a mealworm. He wanted more. I gave him more. 18 days later I was still feeding him.
I did not go out during this time because Chipikins had to eat every 25 minutes. I attracted flies to swat for food. I beheaded mealworms. I made nests and a flight cage. It was longer than a covid quarantine. What was I thinking? Oh yeah, I wasn’t.
Chipikins was maybe a week old in the photo below, and just getting feathers.
Canned cat food on a chopstick was part of the diet. Baby birds cannot swallow at first. The food must be delivered directly to the stomach. Bugs could be pushed in with my fingers. A sprinkle of ground egg shell in the food added calcium.
For a week Chipikins lived on the counter. A baby bird takes 23 days to grow up and fledge so the changes came fast, in body as well as mind. One morning I awoke to a different bird. He had longer wings. He became engaged in the world, made eye contact, soaked in his surroundings. Before that he ate and slept. That’s all.
By the second week it was time to make a flight cage. I would have let Chipikins be free to explore the house, but on his first clumsy attempts to fly he bonked into the windows, so I had to contain him. I would have learned more about his personality if he were free to roam, show his interests, and engage with me. He didn’t mind the pen, but at feeding time he would wiggle out in excitement. There is a video of chow time at the end of this post.
By day 18 it was time to send Chipikins to the sky. I filled him with mealworms and flies first. When I opened my hands outside he zoomed over the bluff and was gone. I thought that was anticlimactic. Swallows eat only in flight. He wasn’t able to feed himself yet and needed my help, but an hour later he was back and talking to me from high in the trees. He would circle around me expertly, doing figure eights, then back to perch in a fir tree.
All day I knew where he was because he’d answer when I spoke. “Hey human, I’m in this tree.” “Hey human, now I’m over here.”
Through binoculars I saw him preen and bask in the sunshine. His chirps were happy. He was not in distress.
Then a miracle. His parents, who I thought were long gone after his siblings died, visited him in his tree. It was only for a moment. They came again later in the day, and Chipikins flew up to meet them briefly. They left, and he perched again.
In the early evening he was gone. I knew this because he did not answer me.
The next morning I was calling when 3 swallows flew high above. One zoomed down to tree top level and said hi. Later in the day the 3 swallows passed over again and Chipikins came right down to circle me, chatting away, telling the story for me to translate.
My neck was sore from 2 days of looking up. Often I thought I saw Chipikins in the sky and I called out, but it was a floater in my eye.
The following 2 pictures are not mine. They are examples of what Chipikins was, and what he will become when he matures into his colours. I believe he is male. That these helpless aliens can grow to independence in 3 weeks is a friggin’ miracle.
This story has the best possible outcome, and I know he will be okay. My bondage was not in vain. Soon he will fly to California or further south for the winter. This swallow family returns each year to nest. I wonder if Chipikins will say hi.
I will build a nest box in the peak of my ceiling, through the wall on the north side of the house. From my sleeping loft I will watch through a two way mirror if the family chooses this for a home.
Good bye, Chipikins. Good luck. Write when you find work.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Jay Rainey is an artist living on an island in British Columbia, Canada.