The Bird Meme: Day 7

Day 7: Most underrated bird


When a bird is easy to see, it's also easy to underrate. As I've said before, we would be far, far more appreciative of the glories offered by Cardinals and Mallards if only they weren't so common. I think there are plenty of other birds about whom the same can be said--the American Goldfinch, all three American bluebirds, and most varieties of pigeons--but I'm going to focus on one that seems to have a decidedly low profile, despite qualities that should make it a birder's favorite.

I'm talking about Hirundo rustica, the Barn Swallow, a bird which is as easy to spot and to identify as any in North America. It's common (the most common species of swallow on Earth), widespread (found on every continent but Antarctica), and familiar even to people who don't pay much attention to birds. If you are near open country or open water, you have every chance of seeing one, and unless you live in the polar regions or the deserts of North Africa, Arabia, or Australia, you will probably have them hanging around your vicinity at some point during the year.

And they're bloody gorgeous.

When they're in flight, the motion is what stuns you: the elaborate dance of the pointed wings and the long forced tail, all trailing the bird like pennants behind a self-propelled kite. Over a lake, they flash downward to the surface to drink, leaving only a series of rings in the water; over dry land they waft up over your head, pivoting and tumbling after insects before plunging down to crest the grass. The silhouette is unmistakable, the flight distinctive; you need only a glimpse to know you've got a swallow, and only an instant more to see the deep fork of the tail and confirm a Barn. It's a ritual for nearly every American birder nearly every summer.

But should you be lucky enough to see Hirundo rustica at rest? Suddenly you have a moment to gather in the details of this bird's plumage, and again, it's stunning. Even a notoriously poor photographer like me can't make it look bad:

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I mean, look at that. The delicate tines of the tail, the scissored, swept-back wings, the glossy indigo back setting off the female's creamy underside and the russet throat and forehead patches... this is pure elegance. 

I was fortunate enough to get a close look at nesting Barn Swallows during our visit to Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. It's not hard to find a swallow's nest on a man-made structure, but they're typically interested in keeping that nest well out of reach of humans. At the Visitor's Center on Antelope, however, they were a bit less fearful, and that helped me get right up to snap this picture of another female building her nest, daub by daub:

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I even got close to this male, whose sex is announced by his pale rusty belly:

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In a sane universe, these birds would be treasured as the stunners they are, but their familiarity seems to make too many birders all but indifferent to their presence. No one goes out birding and hears a companion say, "Hot damn, Barn Swallow!" At most, you'll hear someone mention it as a sign of the changing season, as though its appearance were merely a matter of routine, and not the miracle that brings this tiny package of feathers and spirit into our view from far across the globe: "Ah, there's my FOY Barn Swallow!"

Hirundo rustica may well be a bird we need. But it also far more than we deserve.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on September 18, 2017 6:55 PM.

The Bird Meme: Day 6 was the previous entry in this blog.

The Bird Meme: Day 8 is the next entry in this blog.

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