Saturday, July 22, 2017 Baby Tree Swallow Roller Coaster

Seward, Alaska   

Tuesday, July 18, 2017 Cool and raining, temps in the mid 50s
At 11 am, I received a call from Jill Parson, president of the Alaska Wildbird Rehabilitation Center in Big Lake. She had just checked out several places in the Valley looking for active Tree Swallow nests or any species of swallows and found none. Then she drove 73 miles to Anchorage and Potter Marsh, just south of Anchorage, in desperate need of wild swallows and again found none. In her care were four rescued baby TREE SWALLOWS that needed to be fostered by adults. Time was running out!

Did Seward still have swallows? Yes! For the past week, I had noted dozens and dozens of both Violet-green and Tree Swallows swooping around my neighborhood, the babies lined up side by side on the power lines waiting for food delivery. Upon hearing this good news, she drove another 2 ½ hours to Seward.

I met her at 1:30 pm at the Seward Airport, which has great habitat for swallows with trees, meadows, grasslands, pond, and wetlands. While looking for swallows, Jill told me the story of these orphans. The tree housing the Tree Swallow family in Big Lake fell over in early July. The 1-2 day old babies fell out of their cavity nest and no adults were seen. The four tiny babies came to the Rehab Center on July 3, only 1 to 2 days old. Some had some patchy down, the others nothing, and their eyes were still closed.

Jill began to care for them, feeding them every 20 minutes except at night. Feathers sprouted, and a week later, their eyes opened. For 17 days, Jill fed them, gradually increasing the interval to 30, 40 and sometimes an hour, prepared the baby bird food, cut off the heads of mealworms, cleaned off the splattered sticky baby bird food, changed the soiled paper towels, and kept them safe and warm. When necessary, she took them with her in the car in the covered box so they could be fed on schedule. These were precious babies!

Peering through the rain, we saw only a few occasional unidentified swallows flying low. Most insects don’t fly in the rain, and neither do most swallows. The landscape looked so vast and forbidding, fraught with peril. These naive babies were not ready to meet Nature alone and unsupported! It was pointless to release them here and now.
In a few moments, I had a screened box covered with a towel in my car, a small container of mealworms, another with some baby bird food, a couple small syringes, and a few long Q-tips. The transfer complete, Jill started her 4-hour return trip to Big Lake, and I headed home to start my incredible experience with these tiny baby swallows.

When I got home, I set them on a table and got a good look at them. They were huddled in the corners of the box, peering up at me, their dark feathers and feet matted with poop and dried food. One bird was piled on top of another, squishing it. It was not a pretty sight, but my heart was hooked.

Jill explained that Tree Swallow eggs are incubated as soon as they are laid, and so hatch sequentially. The technical term is asynchronous hatching. Thus one baby, the eldest, was noticeably larger, plus he was a male. They could have been a set of nesting Russian dolls, diminishing in size down to the youngest and smallest. All extremely cute.  

For the rest of the day, about every 45 minutes, I squirted the brown baby bird food into their eager, outstretched beaks. “Chirp! Chirp! Feed ME! Feed ME!” Each baby also received one beheaded mealworm, which they gobbled down with gusto. When they were full, they simply shut their little beaks, sat quietly, and were “all done with that!”

Around 5 pm, I gently moved them into a spare, clean swallow box lined with paper towels in an effort to emulate a tree cavity. At least it was clean, and probably warmer for them, all huddled together in the smaller space. The lid opened up so it was easy to feed them, and then close the lid for darkness. That worked well, but they sure seemed crowded.

I just happened to have a spare parakeet birdcage, so I got that out of storage and added two elderberry branches perpendicular to the two dowel perches. Around 8 pm, I decided to move them from the confines of the swallow box to the cage. It took them a few moments to figure out how to perch, but once they wrapped their little toes around the sticks or the dowels, they seemed to really like it. Now they would not be pooping on each other, and if they needed to stretch those little wings there was room. It was easy to lift off the lid and feed them from above.

After observing them all this time, I just could not bear to see all the poop and dried food on the littlest footstool baby. I carefully picked her up and gave her a very gentle bath under a warm trickle of water in the kitchen sink. I had to use a Q-tip to saturate and rub the gobs off her feathers. Her feet were encased as if in a cast. I felt like a sculptor, removing that which wasn’t baby toes and tiny toenails. She was a mess! She didn’t like it, but she didn’t peck or resist very much.

When her bath was over and most of the gunk was gone, I returned the bedraggled baby to a perch in the cage. She looked so pathetic with her red, bare skin exposed in large patches and feathers all wet and limp. I quickly set up a 60-watt incandescent lamp to keep her warm. As her feathers dried, she preened and preened, smart little bird! After a while, she was all clean and dry and fluffy. She looked so much better!

By now, I was out of mealworms unfortunately as Jill did not plan on an extended care period and the local feed store was out of mealworms, live or dried. I called her and got some interesting menu suggestions to tide them over.

At 9:45 pm I fed them one last time and put the towel over the cage. An interesting, unexpected, but successful Day One ended. Bedtime!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017 Another cool, rainy day with temps in the mid 50s; tomorrow is supposed to be clearing
At 8 am, I lifted the towel. Did they survive the night? Yes! Four pairs of alert dark eyes looked up at me expectantly from various perches in the cage. “Cheep! Cheep! Feed ME! Feed ME!” I offered the syringe of baby bird food and they wouldn’t eat it. “Done with that!”

Soon they were enjoying bits of scrambled egg, plain Greek yogurt and a bit of the baby bird food delivered with varying degrees of success from tweezers. Small portions worked best as the too-large portions were simply rejected and flung off with a quick head flick. I was learning; they were good teachers!

In between feedings, I took each of the babies to the warm water trickle and removed the heavy club of dried food and poop off their toes. It was amazingly durable! That concoction is probably a scientific breakthrough for something, but all I wanted was to get it off. I also tried to get the worst of the detritus off their feathers without the soaking needed for the first baby. The result was fairly clean toes and speckles of food here and there, generally much improved.

I was able to arrange my schedule to stay home. As usual, I had public radio on. They really perked up when “Bird Note” came on! I also have a clock that chimes the hour with different bird songs. They liked that too.

Whenever the babies began to cheep, about every 40 minutes, I grabbed the scrambled egg-yogurt-cat food from the ‘frig and got the tweezers and away we went. Grow, babies, grow!

A friend called to say she had an active Tree Swallow nest. Jill had suggested placing a box with the babies below or near an active nest and let the parents take over the feeding. This technique had worked for her in the past.

Tomorrow would be Foster Parents’ day! I found a sturdy cardboard box, cut another elderberry branch for a perch, added the drill and screws to attach it to the nest box post, and some duct tape to close the lower flap to keep them from accidentally falling out. Time was running out!

Thursday, July 202017 Sun peeked out by noon, temps in the high 50s, low 60s; rain returned midafternoon
The babies looked healthy and ate well. I deeply felt the hourglass of time running out by the minute. So I did a little flight training in my house to help them get ready. I stapled a row of old sheets to block off the hallway and let each baby practice flapping its wings and flying. The oldest, largest one did great, in fact, excellent. He was hard to catch! The second oldest did pretty well, and #3 and 4 aren't quite there yet. 

My friend said she’d be home by 1 pm so at the appointed time, I loaded the birdcage and food into the car to drive them to her swallow nest, ready for the big transfer to foster care. They seemed to take this all in stride, quietly sitting on their perch side by side in the parakeet cage, looking ahead as the scenery whizzed past.

When I got to my friend’s house, she had bad news. She hadn’t seen any swallows and feared they had all fledged. After some deliberation, she opened up the box. Sure enough, it was empty except for an unhatched egg. Time was running out!

I called another friend in town who had a Violet-green Swallow nest on one side of his house and a Tree Swallow on the other. He said the Violet-green Swallows had already left the nest box, but thought that the Tree Swallows were still there.

So off I raced back to town. We watched the nest box for a while. I wanted to pop the babies into the nest box and hope the parents would feed them and all would be well. But we did not know if they would be accepted and we did not want to jeopardize the existing family. If strange babies were suddenly introduced into an active nest would violence erupt? Could the box of babies be placed underneath? Soon, all these questions were moot as it was apparent the swallows had already fledged. Too late! What to do?

I checked another recently active nest box and it too was quiet. I felt desperate. On the one hand, the younger babies weren’t ready to fly and I didn’t want to throw them away, but time was running out! I needed swallows! I drove back to the airport where to my relief I saw lots of swallows, both Violet-green and Tree, swooping around. The welcome sun had returned as well. Was this the day?

I set the birdcage on top of the car at the side of the road. After no reaction from the babies or swallows, I set the cage on the ground near some yarrow and grasses with the top off and moved the stick perch to the top. The four babies watched, preened and stretched but did not vocalize even when some swallows flew past. The adults, if they noticed the babies, did not come over.

Hmmm. I watched and waited a long time. Finally a car drove past and the oldest baby flushed off the perch. As the car passed, I caught a glimpse of him flying low towards some bushes. I never saw or heard him again. Bon voyage!

The other three just kept sitting, preening, and watching, quite content. I decided these babies were not quite old enough to fly and needed my care for another day or two. They have to grow a bit bigger, and doinglearn to fly to get ready to migrate. And learn how to find food. Lots of challenges ahead in the wide world. 

With more rain on the way, I put the lid back on the cage and loaded the three babies back in the car, relieved.

On the way home, I stopped at the store and shopped for canned cat food. So many kinds, but none of them insect-based. Would swallows prefer to eat a cow, another bird, or fish? After much deliberation, I ended up with a 5.5 oz can of Newman’s Own Organic Premium Cat Food Chicken Dinner for a whopping $2.46 and a can of Purina Friskies Savory Shreds with Ocean Whitefish and Tuna in Sauce on sale for 86¢.

As it turned out, the babies liked the canned cat food alternated with bits of scrambled egg and yogurt. To introduce them to insects, I prowled around the house with a small container and clapped it on top of unsuspecting dime-nickel-quarter-sized moths resting on the siding. I put them in the freezer for a few minutes and then presented the inert insects to the outstretched beaks of the excited babies. They immediately knew THIS was the real deal. I also tried a cranefly, but all those spindly long legs and wings got in the way.

I know there were probably hundreds of insects hiding in my yard, visible only to the knowledgeable or to birds, but I had to settle for the easy pickings and wish there were more. None of the March flies that were so abundant and obnoxious at the beginning of July were present, just when I needed them. Too bad. Not a one.

I found a great website, the Tree Swallow Nest Box Project <> It really supported my decision not to release the too-young babies. Every millimeter of wing length spelled survival. Grow, babies, grow!

Friday, July 20, 2017 Clouds lifted and sun came out! Temps 56 to 64º, south wind 5 to 16 mph.
I had to take the three babies in the birdcage with me today in the car so I could be away from the house and still feed them every 40 minutes. I put the lid of food on top of an icepack in a large yogurt container to keep it cool. It was very fun to ride around with these guys next to me in the passenger seat. I felt very special!

My neighbor called me over to see the Violet-green babies in their substandard roof eave nest. It was reassuring to know that there were other late swallow babies still around.

At noon, I had to take my dogs for a walk at a local park. I left the windows down about 6" for ventilation as it was warm and sunny. When I returned I found that some ignoramus had reached in my locked can and removed the cage lid! Unbelievable!

One baby was clinging to the car seat cover and one sat on the floor, terrorized. I put them back in the cage and fed them. After a thorough search of the car, I realized the third baby had escaped. Then I spent the next two hours trying to lure the loose baby back. It's great he can fly, but there were no other swallows around. I brought the caged babies as close to him as I could. Whenever I fed them, they would chirp and he would answer from the depths of a devil's club thicket that I could not enter. I walked around and around, trying to find him without luck. I was so bummed and mad!

While I was waiting and hoping, I learned how to stun flies that landed on my legs. I collected quite a few and the babies loved the natural food.

Later that evening around 11 pm, I heard the unmistakable cheeping of the fledgling about a block away from the release site. At least he could fly that far, and had evaded the neighborhood Magpies and Steller’s Jays. Bon chance!

I learned of yet another friend who still has Tree Swallows. I hope to place the babies near the nest tomorrow morning for fostering. I think they'll be ready. I know time is running out.

Saturday, July 22, 2017 Sunny with a brisk north wind, 8 to 15 mph with gusts to 24 mph, switching to south by 2 pm. Temps from 62 to 75º
 I fed the two remaining babies the last of the chilled moths and the usual eggs-yogurt-cat food, then loaded them up in the car. We drove out to Mile 7 to my friend’s house located in a clearing in the forest. His swallows were also nesting in a substandard cavity in the roof. Funny how they choose nest sites, ignoring all the science-based recommendations for particular hole diameter size (1 3/8” to 1 ½”) and nest box dimensions (at least 5x5” floor).

While it was wonderful to see the parents swooping in to feed their hungry babies, it was immediately apparent to me that these were Violet-green Swallows. The nest in the roof gable seemed too high for fostering, but I set the cage on the ground just in case.  A fly flew through the cage and both babies tried to get it. A swing and a miss, that was cool!

But between swallow species, there was no interaction. Although the setting was protected from the wind and away from traffic and water hazards, the lack of other swallows was a big negative. I decided to pack them up and take them back to the airport. Darn! It was almost 11:15 am, the morning almost gone, and time was running out, out, out! I felt desperately desperate.

At first, I did not see any swallows along the airport road. The wind was very strong (had to be strong to blow away those clouds!), and discouraging. Then a few swallows appeared high above the trees, and a few more. Yay! Swallows! Still here!

I checked out a few spots just off the road and found one with a nice little clearing surrounded by elderberries, alders, and spruce trees. It was out of the wind and in the sun. It was the best I could do.

With a heavy heart, I brought the cage out and carried it and the food container to the clearing. I removed the lid and fed the babies one last time. Then I gently picked up first the one and set it on a bare elderberry branch.  Then the youngest (and cleanest) baby, and set her next to her sister.
They looked so cute! But also so little, innocent, and vulnerable!

I waited with them as they sat there, side by side, looking all around, checking out this new place. After a while, I fed them again, “Cheep! Cheep!” What a pleasure to give them one last boost. Then it was time to leave and let Nature take its course. What will be, will be. I packed up the food and the cage and headed back to the car.

I took the dogs for a nice long walk as suddenly I had no 40-minute limit. When we were done around 2 pm, I decided to check on the babies instead of driving past. Still sitting there! Adorable! They were glad to see the food delivery. “Cheep! Cheep!”  Grow, babies, grow!

I was glad to see them, though very worried. While it was great to be able to feed them “one last time”, they weren’t making any visible progress on independence. Nor were any swallows showing the least bit of interest in fostering them.  I fed them again, one last time. “Cheep! Cheep!” Grow, babies, grow!  Then I left for good, my heart aching for them, but knowing it was for the best.

My house sure seemed empty without them. I noodled around for a while, a bit lost. Then I remembered it was Hazardous Waste Collection Day, the site conveniently located near the airport. I scrounged around and found a few items to deliver. I fixed up a fresh lid of food, renewed the icepack, loaded up the cage, and headed to the Transfer Site with my burned out light bulbs. That mission accomplished, I went back to the release site. I just had to check!

Now it was about 4 pm. I headed into the clearing with my food container, wondering what I would find. The branches were bare. Empty and deserted. Happy sad! Then I heard a familiar cheeping up high. Higher than a tree. A baby Tree Swallow fluttered overhead, fluttering but flying! Yippee!!!

Then there were two babies! It was hard to know for sure as swallows are so erratic and quick, but maybe there was a third. I can only hope for the fourth! I saw one baby with an insect in her beak that she had caught ALL BY HERSELF midair! I was so proud! These little wonders had figured it out!

Watching them, I realized that when they fledged, they transformed from Tree Swallows to Sky Swallows, totally at home in the air, playing with the wind, floating, gliding gracefully, and adept at snapping up insects. What a pleasure to see them and know that they had unlocked the mystery of their marvelous gifts, grounded no more. With a very happy heart, I bid them a happy final, final good-bye and headed home.
What an emotional rollercoaster! What a grand finale! I felt so enriched and happy knowing I had done the best I could, and they were on their way.

I cleared the newspaper off the table and washed, bleached, and dried the various containers, tweezers, and birdcage. I saved everything just in case...

Thank you, Jill,  for this experience. We made it just in time!

For more information on the Alaska WildBird Rehabilitation Center, or to make donations, please visit <> or on Facebook at <>

Note: Jill added me to her USFWS permit to that I could legally care for these wild birds.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

1 comment: