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Studer, Jacob Henry, 1840-1904. / Birds of North America
(1903)

[Plate LXXII. American barn swallow, barn swallow. (Hirundo horreorum.) cont.],   pp. 105-110


Page 105


AMERICAN BARN SWALLOW.                  105
When our clime the sunbeams gild,
Here your airy nest you build;
And, when bright days cease to smile,
Fly to Memphis or the Nile."
About the middle of February, or early in March, this species is
usually met with in Florida and Georgia. About the beginning of
April they are seen in the Middle States. Their migrations ex-
tend as far as Alaska, Greenland, and the West Indies. The Barn
Swallow is very rapid when on the wing, which enables it to pass
promptly from one country to another, to more favorable climates.
Professor R. A. Oakes, a well-known writer on the science of Orni-
thology, publishes a very interesting account of " The Swallow in
Myth and Song," from which we take the following:
"1 From his familiar intercourse with the human race, the swal-
low has become endowed with everv kindly quality. The Scandi-
navians call him the bird of consolation. In that bitter agony,
through which the sins of the world have become as white as snow,
they claim the Swallow came and spread his wings beneath the
cross to lighten the load of the Savior, and when the last great suf-
fering came which caused the very earth to shudder and hide its
face in darkness, the loving bird hung with pity over the convulsed
brow and softly sung-Salva I Salva! Salva I
"' Pliny, who accords to all animals the possession of faculties
akin to those of man, tells us that the Swallows refuse to visit
Bizya, because of the crime of Tereus, and that they never enter
the houses of Thebes, because that city had been so often captured.
Every year, he adds, near the city of Coptos, on an island sacred
to Isis, they strengthen the angular corners with chaff and straw,
thus effectually fortifying it against the river.  Night and day
they persevere in this labor, and many work so unremittingly that
they perish.
" Possibly this work is done in honor of the Egyptian goddess
who once assumed their lovely guise. In his paper on Isis and
Osiris, Plutarch, the most charming of essayists, tells us that after
Typhon had treacherously enticed Osiris into the curious ark, had
fastened the cover, making it a living tomb, and had thrown it into
the sea; after the sea had cast it back upon the coast of Byblos,
and the heath in which his coffin lodged, had grown into a beauti-
ful tree, inclosing it within the trunk; after the k;ng,, admiring the
unusual size of the plant, had cropped its bushy parts and made it
the support of the roof of his house, then Isis came, and, by tender
endearments, obtained access to the king's dwelling. Thus living
once more in the hidden presence of her beloved, she would turn
herself into a Swallow, and unceasingly fly around the imprisoned
coffin, moaning his misfortune and her own sad fate.
"1 So when Ulysses, after many years' wandering, returns weary
and foot-sore to his home to only find it thickly beset with suitors
for faithful Penelope's hand, Athenia encourages him to do battle,
and, in the words of Homer-
, Willing longer to survey
The sire and son's great act, withheld the day,
By further toils decreed the Lrave to try,
And level poised the wings of victory;
Then with a change of form eludes the sight,
Perch'd like a Swallow on a rafter's height,
And unperceived enjoys the rising fight.'
"1 A Swallow chirped around the head of Alexander the Great
while he slept, and awakened him to warn him of the machinations
which his family were plotting against him.
- St. Francis Assissi, the purest and loveliest of all the later
saints, when preaching at Alviane, could not make himself heard
from the twittering of the Swallows which at the time were build-
ing their nests; pausing, therefore, in his sermon, he said: ' My
sisters, you have talked enough ; it is time that I had my turn. Be
silent, and listen to the word of God I' And they were silent im-
mediately.
"1 Of the musical powers of the Swallow, not much can be said
in praise. Gilbert White, whose delightful book is full of notes on
the Swallow, tells us that he I is a delightful songster, and in soft
sunny weather sings both perching and flying on trees in a kind of
concert, and on chimney-tops.' The Greeks, however, had a
proverb advising men not to harbor Swallows as they were bab-
blers. So in the table, when the Swallows boasted to the Swans
of their twittering constantly for the benefit of the public, they were
answered that it was better to sing little and well to a chosen few
than much and badly to all. Virgil, in the fourth Georgic, rather
slightingly designates them as the ' chattering Swallows,' and
Isaiah, as if reproving himself, says: ' Like a Swallow do I chat-
ter.' A son of the Greek comedian, Aristophanes, whose name
was Necostratus, and who was also a devotee of the muses, thus
sings of them-
' If in prating from mayan till night,
A sign of our wisdom it be,
The Swallows are W-:ser by right,
For they prattle much faster than we.'
"Against this rhyme of the old Greek poet let us place this
verse of one of our charming modern singers, Mr. C. G. Leland:
Oh, spring bird of the early flowers, first minstrel of the year,
Fast darting herald of the morn--right welcome art thou here.
Thou art the truest troubadour, for who to-day doth sing
So constantly of winter past-so oft of coming spring.'
"Shakespeare, the sublimest master of all, has painted the
Swallow in such brilliant colors that all other pictures seem tame
beside it:
' The guest of summer,
The temple-hunting martlet, does approve
By his loved masonry, that heaven's breath
Smells wooingly here. No jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, hut this bid.l
Hath made its pendent bed, and procreant cradle.
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed
The air is delicate.'
"In all weather folk-lore the Swallow plays a conspicuous part.
Spenser tells us-
'When Swallow peeps out of her nest,
The cloudy welkin cleareth.'
"In Gay's Pastoral we find-
'When Swallows fleet soar high and sport in air,
He told us that the welkin would be clear.'
"A sign of rain, Smart, in his Hop Garden, tells us, is when
The Swallows, too, their airy circuits wave,
And, screaming, skim the brook.
"As during damp weather the insects on which the Swallows
feed hug the earth or flutter low over streams, while the warm
sunshine and the clear bright atmosphere tempt them to more ex-
tended journeys, these prognostications may be taken as a pretty
sure guide. It was because they thus unremittingly pursued their
prey, that Pythagoras, who believed in the transmigration of souls,
refused them shelter beneath his roof. So Chaucer dismisses our
bird in this doubtful couplet-
'The Swallow, morder of bees smale,
That maken honey of flouers fressh of hewe.'
Of the intelligence of this bird all observers in natural history
furnish ample record. Considering the size of his brain his men-
tal resources are wonderful. M. Dupont de Nemours gives an ac-
count of one I which had unhappily slipped its foot into a slip-knot
of pack-thread, the other end of which was attached to a spout of
the College of Four Nations. Its strength was almost exhausted;
it hung at the end of the thread, uttered cries, and sometimes raised
itself as if making efforts to fly away. All the Swallows of the
large basin between the bridges of the Tuileries and the Pont Neuf,
and perhaps from places more remote, had assembled to the num-
ber of several thousand. Their flight was like a cloud; all uttered
a cry of pity and alarm. After some hesitation, and a tumultuous
counsel, one of them fell upon a device for delivering their com-
panion, communicated it to the rest, and began to put it into exe-
cution. Each took his place; all those who were at hanfd went in
turn, as if in the sport of running at the ring, and, in passing,
struck the thread with their bills. These efforts, directed at one
point, were continued every second, and even more frequently.
Half an hour was passed in this kind of labor before the thread
was severed and the captive restored to liberty.' Linnaeus, the
great naturalist, gives an account of a Sparrow taking up its abode
in the nest of a Swallow, and resisting every attempt, not only of
its true occupant, but of its companions, to oust the intruder. Af-
ter vain attempts, during which the Sparrow only intrenched him-
self the more securely, the Swallows resorted to new measures.
They commenced bringing mud in their bills, and gradually walled
up the entrance to the nest, thus burying their enemy in a living
tomb. Many like instances have been recorded by ornithologists
who have lived since the days of the great Swedish naturalist.
"Jesse, in his Gleanings from Natural History, tells of a Swal-
low's nest having been blown down in a severe storm, of a coin-
AMERICAN BARN SWALLOW.
105


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