Down the road on Mitkof Highway, which in those days was a dusty gravel affair, about 10 miles south of Petersburg, Alaska, between the road and Wrangell Narrows, stood the University of Alaska’s Experimental Fur Farm. In the spring of 1964 I had finished my degree at the University of Wisconsin. Without a clear idea of what to do with my life except that it would be lived in Alaska, I’d taken a summer job at the Fur Farm. My feelings about fur farming aside, the grand surroundings of the farm suited me for above the Mitkof highway lay wilderness. The land rose steeply into the small forested mountains—some would say large forested hills—of Mitkof Island. If you love wild places., think of this: MItkof Island in the middle of the largest national forest in the nation, is only a small part of it. The 17 million acre Tongass National Forest occupies nearly the entirety of Southeast Alaska. All of the creatures of forest and sea that you can imagine in this unpaved and unpolluted corner of the world, live here in abundance.
The fur arm was a state inholding and it sloped gently downhill from the road to the Narrows. I remember its layout something like this, starting from the top: road, lawn, directors house and office, more lawn, mink and marten sheds, fox pens, semi-wild untended area, intertidal area, Wrangell Narrows. A narrow dirt access drive ran straight down from the road. Facing the mink sheds across this drive a row of two or three maintenance buildings strung out down the slope and just above them, buried in salmon berry bushes, a small shaded house trailer hid beneath a sheltering roof. That’s where I lived.
Fur farms by their nature attract flies and other insects. Two dozen or more barn swallows knew about the flies and had established residency on the farm.
These swallows, swift, and maneuverable, swooped and dodged and darted among the mink sheds in marvelous displays of flight mastery for anyone who cared to notice. In addition to their flyways among the sheds, the swallows favored the patch of lawn, 150 feet square, above the directors house. It generated mosquitos and, being the only flat area around, offered no obstacles to flight, not counting three foot high berms at the upper and lower edges. Shooting across the lawn at lightning speed, the swallows, following the terrain, rose at the berms in graceful chandelles, reversing course at the apex of their rise and rushed back over the lawn in the opposite direction, snatching up insects on the way.
The mink sheds, and there were three or four of them, long, narrow, gable roofed, open-sided buildings, had a walkway down the center and mink cages on either side. The entryway to each shed was enclosed, not open-sided, and a person passed through this short, walled enclosure before getting to the mink cages. The enclosed entry had a doorway, no actual door but a doorway, and on the inside of every front wall, above this doorway, one or more swallow nests were mud-plastered to the boards. Some of the nests were old, leftovers from previous years. Mud scars marked places where old nests had fallen away. New nests with fresh, moist mud, were darker.
Every mud puddle on the farm became a Home Depot to the swallows, a source of building material, so much the better if any sprigs of straw, wafted from the sheds, were scattered about. Multiple trips were made to the edges of the puddles and the swallows landed so lightly on the soft mud that I never saw a soiled wingtip or breast feather. With birds from different couples arriving at a puddle simultaneously, shopping trips for nest materials became social occasions, chances to bump into neighbors, and much twittering gossip carried on. But nest building was serious, time driven work. Beak-full by beak-full mud was flown to the nest site and added to the growing structure. Sprigs of straw appeared to be coveted treasures and disagreements about ownership of particular scraps of straw sometimes broke out. Straw got incorporated into the mud as a binder, a strengthening addition, functioning not unlike the straw used in building wattle huts. Mud did not seem to me a trustworthy adhesive for gluing to walls but it served the needs of the feather-weight swallows .
Three good men, each with interesting backgrounds, saw to the day-to-day operation of the farm. I liked them all, but they did not sufficiently appreciate the free winged insect control operating on the premises. Whenever they spotted a nest being constructed over an entryway, they knocked it down, thus avoiding the mess of bird droppings on the floor below.
I nailed platforms below the offending nests and that solved the swallow nest issue. The resident Steller’s jays were also indicted by the staff for stealing mink food, but that’s another story.
I made it part of my summer project to band nestling barn swallows. To reach the nests and check on the growth of the young birds I’d haul a ladder around from shed to shed every few days and climb to the nest sites. The parent birds, busy hunting insects, carried their catches to their nests. They grew so accustomed to me sticking my nose into their business that they soon ignored me, hovering so close that I could feel the draft of their wing beats on the sides of my face. Some were bold enough and impatient enough to zip in and land on the rim of their nest even with my intruding face mere inches away. As a result I discovered that the swallows were not returning with a single mosquito each trip but with a dozen or more! The still living mosquitos were stuck to the edges of the beak by one or several of their legs and hung outside the beak, some with their wings still buzzing! So, how the swallows do that? How could they open their beaks to capture a mosquito without allowing the ones already captured to escape? True, there was moisture around the edges of their beaks particularly on the lips at the angle or corner of the mouth so the insects were more or less glued in place. But how did the delicate mosquitos stay stuck and how did their thin legs stay unbroken while being carried at speed? And how did they get distributed so neatly around a swallow’s beak? The action was too fast for my eyes, but modern cameras could probably reveal the secrets.
Here’s another amazing ability of these swallows. When the fledglings, born and raised in nests on the inside walls of a mink shed, took their maiden flights they fluttered about and generally passed through the entry to end up outside the shed, with their parents hovering about them twittering excitedly the whole time. When the last of a brood took this first flight I would witness an empty nest. All of the young were outside, with the first time flyer sometimes on the ground but mostly teetering on a wire or ledge or twig.
!’d think, ‘well that nest is abandoned. It has served its purpose.” But then, making my rounds in the late evening, I was astonished to find the nest fully occupied! There were the swallowlets, eyes half closed, perched contentedly around the rim, cheek by jowl, facing out, ready for a night’s sleep. Somehow, every day toward evening, the parents managed to get them all back into the nest, even the ones that had made their first flights that very day. The parents seemed to be able to guide those first flights to some extent by hovering around or in front of first fliers, sometimes blocking them in the air, forcing or encouraging them in certain directions. Still, getting the kid, the novice, brand new new and weak flyer, to pass through the entry and, once inside, guide them upward to the nest above—that’s a feat worthy of note and wonder.
One day I was walking back up from the mink sheds to my trailer. A maintenance shed right next to my trailer, taller than the rest had two stories and was painted barn red, while all the rest were white. A pair of swallows had built their nest on the side of this building just under the eaves, as is their way. Rain fell hard that day, a downpour, not the usual Southeast Alaska misty drizzle. A swallow flying back and forth in the rain around nest site in an unusual manner drew my attention to the spot. Its flight was hovering and frantic and I expected to see a raider such as a raven or crow or jay. But there were no raiders--and no nest! The nest was gone! A few remaining clumps of mud still plastered to the wall reassured me that the nest had been there. My eyes went quickly to the ground directly below. Sure enough, there it lay, wet and broken, with three naked wet baby barn swallows squirming feebly in the weeds. The still-alive babies and the parents fluttering around told the story. A nest failure had just occurred.
Quickly gathering up the babies and some of the mud and straw nest remains, I rushed to the trailer, stuffed a rag in a cereal bowl, put the swallows in the bowl, put the bowl, along with the swallow babies and nest scraps in the oven and turned on the heat. Leaving the temperature set as low as possible, and leaving the oven door open, I rushed to the carpenter shed and cut a nest-size half moon platform on the band saw out of 2 x 4. Hurriedly nailing a strip of hardware cloth around the curved portion of the wood and letting the metal mesh protrude an inch and a half above the wood to form a rim, and drilling a hole for a spike through the wood I ran back to the trailer to check on things. No smell of roasting birds greeted me at the door and, in fact, the little swallows were dry, warm, and much livelier than before. Leaving everything the way it was except for turning off the heat, I raced to find an 18 foot extension ladder, set it up against the shed, and carrying hammer, spike and the recently fashioned nest platform, climbed to the top of the ladder and nailed the faux nest right over the spot where the original had been.
Back to the trailer! The nest scraps were warm and mostly dry and the swallow-lets, even more lively than before, were weakly holding up their heads, mouths agape, seeking food.
Back to the shed. With mud and straw and baby birds clasped against my chest in one hand, the other hand free to keep me from pitching off backwards, I climbed the ladder. Both parents fluttered on either side of me twittering excitedly as I climbed. Reaching the top, I stuffed mud and straw onto the half moon platform, forming a very crude nest. So eager were the parents for me to get lost and leave them to their children that one was landing briefly on my head! Maybe the little ingrates thought I had wrecked their nest. Had they seen me put their kids in the oven? Whatever, I squashed a hole in the mud to form a depression, dumped the swallow-lets in and leaned away to give the parents room. Before I get down even a single rung Mama Swallow was on the platform, sheltering wings slightly extended, wriggling around to fit herself to the new nest. The rain, meanwhile, had eased and Dad
Swallow flew off, perhaps on a mosquito hunt.
Early next morning with sunshine beating on the mink farm, I checked the shed wall. Way up, under the shadow of the eave, tail feathers of a parent swallow extended over the hardware cloth rim of the nest.
All was well.
R T WALLEN