Resetting the Avian Clockwork


Havre de Grace. -- This shows signs of being an unusual year. Even the natural calendar is a little out of kilter.

On April 7, bringing a boat up from the Choptank River to its summer home in the Susquehanna here, I rounded the green buoy off Spesutie Island and turned into the brisk westerly wind that was blowing the tops off the whitecaps.

For the moment the sky was clear and the spray sparkled in the sunshine, but clouds were gathering again and it was cold out there. The water temperature was about 50 degrees, and except for a tugboat and gravel-filled barge coming down the channel there were no other boats to be seen. It might have felt lonely if I hadn't been almost at the end of my 100-mile trip.

As it was, these waters are so familiar that I feel proprietary about them, and the emptier they are the stronger the illusion that they're mine. So I was enjoying the lack of company and the early-spring sense of spaciousness when a small bird with a forked tail flew past the boat just above the waves. It was a barn swallow.

This was a small surprise. Barn swallows are familiar symbols of spring, but in my book they have no business being out over the Susquehanna Flats on April 7. It's a week or more too early for them, and the swallows have always been punctilious. It's what they're famous for. We count on them, and not only in Capistrano.

So if the swallows are back early, it must mean something. Is spring a week farther along than we thought? It certainly didn't feel like it out there on the Susquehanna Flats with that sharp wind blowing. Or is this a fundamental change in traditional swallow behavior?

So many old standards have been toppled lately by the tempests of modernity that there's no reason to think that the timeliness of swallows won't be similarly affected. Birds have to deal with cultural change, too. The social upheaval in the ordered world of the Canada goose is a good local example of this.

Some independent-thinking members of the goose population decided some years ago that flying to Canada every spring was tedious, and that spending the summers hanging around suburban golf courses would be much more enjoyable. So that's what many of them now do, in the process bringing up new generations of geese who couldn't manage to migrate even if they wanted to.

This self-indulgent behavior no doubt disgusts and infuriates those more conservative geese who still form their old-fashioned V's and head north each March, but the rebels have no intention of giving up their relaxed new lifestyle. As a result they're evolving into a genetically-distinct stay-at-home subspecies.

Wildlife managers, meanwhile, have labeled these year-round residents "nuisance geese" and are pushing separate hunting seasons for them.

The social implications this policy will have for the geese aren't yet clear, but it may in the long run reinforce an appreciation for traditional goose values.

In the midst of all this avian tumult, at least we can still count on the ospreys. They started showing up this year in mid-March, the normal time, and went about their nest-building with their usual determination. Because there are more ospreys now than there are ideal nest locations, this is a more competitive exercise than it was a few years ago, when their population crashed and they seemed on the edge of extinction.

It's easy to forget how recent that was. As I was coming down the Choptank on this trip it had seemed as though every buoy and daymarker on the river was an osprey construction site. At Knapp's Narrows on Tilghman Island, an osprey had snatched a fish from the water just in front of the boat as casually as a harbor herring gull picking up a hamburger roll, and I didn't even blink, this spectacular sight has become so ordinary.

No other barn swallows appeared over the water that day, and after I docked the boat and went home I went right to the barn to look around. I found none there either, and checked my sketchy notes from years past. Our local swallows had invariably arrived between April 14 and April 19.

I thought of reporting the lone bird I'd seen over the Flats to the Audubon Society, but their focus these days seems to be on population control and toxic waste. Even if barn swallows had showed up in great numbers on April 7, it probably wouldn't have been considered significant, unless there were a way to blame it on the ozone layer.

As it happened, my resident swallow population did appear in the barn two days later. When I arrived that morning just as it was getting light, there they were, weaving in and out the doorway and inspecting the nests they left behind last September. Their presence affirmed that some standards still survive. Of course, they were still several days early, and I made a note of that.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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