Way back behind the gas cans and bicycles, above the busted rakes and shovels, a mud nest hangs from a ceiling joist in our garage. It has hung there for three years. And the engineers that built it are on their way back from the southern plains of Argentina. I expect them any day now.
Each year, in late spring, barn swallows return to our home in Maine from a place we've never seen. They fly more than 10,000 miles just to get to our garage and live above a couple of old mattresses.
They settle in as soon as the double doors are opened wide to spring weather. The doors stay open all summer. Four months is a short time to give up a garage in return for their company. I swing the doors open gladly, for the swallows remind us that spring has indeed arrived, no matter how many frosts and gray days we may have at ground level. The swallows' acrobatics enliven the airspace from May on.
It's easy to tell when the birds have arrived. Things buzz and trill like a morning in the tropics. One day, the garage is ours. The next day, it's theirs. Suddenly, I'm driving onto a busy airfield with a lot of flapping and gliding. Flights are swift. A bird will hover in a tremulous flutter a few feet from me, twittering as I get out of my car. I'm greeted by a pair of wings! Wow!
The message is: Get out of the way! The nesting operation is in full swing. The steel-blue flappers zoom in and out over the hood of our car with fresh mud in their beaks. They may make 1,200 flights just to prepare the nest, alighting like arriving helicopters. When pale feathers start drifting onto the car windshield like snowflakes, I'll know the repaired nest has become a soft cradle for the unhatched. (A swallow collects only white feathers for its nest, I'm told).
This year, we'll place a tarp over the tool bench. A good strategy. Last year, a set of wrenches was caked with bird droppings by August. We tell the kids not to walk barefoot in the garage. One must look before leaning against a fender or grabbing a rake handle.
In the summer, the swallows wake us up an hour earlier. We complain, but not really. They sail above us at dusk when we go fishing at the neighbor's frog pond under the first twinkling stars. They follow us on the lawn mowers at midday, hoping we'll kick up some ground bugs. They swoop in front of the rototiller, flapping high and then gliding low, convincing us that spring is not just in the air but, thank goodness, in the ground as well.
It used to be that most barns housed barn swallows in Maine. Some still do. It was the custom on farms to keep barn doors open, and swallows were free to fly inside. The rafters above the huge lofts were a refuge for them, and there were always plenty of bugs in a barn - even on a rainy day. A barn exudes a sense of quiet strength that you don't get from a garage, where bikes and cars wheel in and out all day.
When Macomber's Dairy closed down a half-mile from our house, its barn doors slammed shut. It had 20 nests in it, plastered along the rafters above the milking machines and manure spreaders. Another old barn in the neighborhood simply caved in as though a giant had stepped on it. Who knows what nests were in it. Nineteenth-century bird artist John James Audubon once counted as many as 50 swallows' nests in an abandoned barn in a swampy, buggy area in nearby New Hampshire. A few years ago, a newspaper reported a record 55 nests in a barn in Ipswich, Mass., north of Boston. Nearly all of them were occupied or "active." We've only got one active, crumbly one that I know of.
For swallows, who like to dash and flit about, garages must seem a likely substitute for a barn, although they've also been known to nest in sink-holes, culverts, skyscrapers, lampshades, and even old wells. It's pretty easy to tell who in the neighborhood has mud nests plastered on crossbeams above their cars. Their garage doors are open from May to September. Sometimes their cars are parked in the driveway.
Even in winter, with gusty winds whirling about, kicking up errant leaves and the dust of summer, the dry mud shells stay aloft, solid and secure. Every once in a while, I'll drive into the garage feeling safe from a whipping cold northeaster at my back and look up to see the promise of spring and new life humbly suspended in a corner.
Didn't I see a squadron of tireless fliers on the telephone wires last August, getting ready to head south? "As high in the sky as I look I can see swallows," 20th-century naturalist Calvin Simonds wrote. They do return.
But should we do something about the name?
Barn swallows will probably always be considered a sign of spring in New England, whether there are barns or not, and for as long as there are white feathers, I suppose. But I've been thinking for years about drumming up support among our neighbors to petition for a name change. It's clear what it would be, but it might be a hard sell.
"Garage swallow" just doesn't have quite the same ring.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society