In the latest of our occasional Earth Justice blog posts, Lisa Barrott shares how for ten days she lived alongside a family of swallows, caring about what happened to them, in awe of their beauty and abilities.
We had two Holy Weeks this year. The first started in cool sunshine in the courtyard at St James’s with a Palm Sunday procession around the church, waving palm leaves at bewildered tourists. The second ended in the blazing light of Easter Sunday in Cyprus – Easter is a week later in the Greek orthodox calendar – with enthusiastic celebrations in the local village square, eating and drinking and dancing. We had travelled to Cyprus for a family wedding of a couple who lived on the island. They had postponed their wedding several times because of COVID and travel restrictions and by the time of the wedding, everyone was willing to make huge efforts to get to what seemed like the first celebration in two years. Guests arrived on the island from all over, pent-up with partying and ready to shake loose from the blistering impact of the pandemic and to reconnect with family.
When we arrived at the house where we were staying, late on the first Maundy Thursday, we found we were sharing our home in the sun: other guests had arrived there before us. Under the eaves of the house was a nest, made of the white local mud. And in the nest were four baby birds with wide open beaks. The four huge open mouths eclipsed the tiny bodies and the baby birds constantly yelled for food. Here they are when we first arrived…. As a younger child myself and once again surrounded by my older siblings, I had sympathy with the chick with its beak firmly shut.
None of us were birdwatchers but we had the internet: they were Barn Swallows which are very common on the island. Barn Swallows make nests out of the local mud, in this case white limestone which covers this part of Cyprus and find shelter under the eaves of the local tourist villas, mostly, we thought, to avoid the watchful gatherings of village cats waiting for aeronautical errors.
Barn Swallows spend the winter in Africa south of the Sahara and on the Indian sub-continent, many thousands of kilometres away. Swallows travel hundreds of kilometres a day at a speed of over 30 km/h and only briefly touch down to rest and recover – how astonishing is that? These small birds have an arduous, uncertain journey and are vulnerable to starvation and exhaustion from crossing vast seas and deserts and being battered by strong winds and sandstorms. And yet, astoundingly, they had arrived here in sun-drenched Cyprus to build a nest in the eaves of a holiday villa.
Easter Sunday in England melted into Palm Sunday in Cyprus and the local churches were decorated with palms which wilted quickly in the heat. Time passed in a sunny haze of goodwill and celebrations: the wedding was beautiful and everyone scrubbed up well. And every day we woke up and greeted the baby birds in the nest and cleared up their poo – there was a lot of poo – and sat and watched the parents. We ate our breakfast whilst they ate theirs. We were dive-bombed a few times, so we moved our table, we were in their way. And at the end of each day, when we returned from our days out seeing family and sight-seeing, we returned to the family under the eaves to see how they were doing. Four people with little knowledge of birds were caught up in the life of this parallel family living in the same space.
We realised that we had overlooked one of the babies – or they were rotating their positions, always leaving one in the back row, rather like the wedding photos. Constantly the parent birds swooped in and out the nest to find food, but the size and number of chicks appeared daunting for the two tiny adults. Barn Swallows eat insects – lots and lots of insects – and we wondered how the energy balance could possibly work for the parents and the babies. The more energy consumed, the more feathers grown but they were growing a good deal of feathers from tiny, tiny insects and it takes a lot of energy to catch the insects. How could that possibly work? But here they are on Day 8, looking much more grown up and silky.
And finally….we woke up on the day before we left, Easter Sunday, to find the nest empty, the birds had flown their nest. Sometimes natural symbolism does not mess around. We didn’t have far to look, they had just flown to the nearby tree, where the parents were still feeding them whilst the newly fledged chicks worked out how things work outside the nest. See the parent on the wing still feeding their child – what control! We all celebrated that they had all had the courage to fly.
For ten days we lived alongside the swallows, caring about what happened to them, in awe of their beauty and abilities. The nature documentary stepped out of the screen and we became aware how closely intertwined our two families were. For a short, precious time we became conscious of each other. We had arrived in Cyprus to reconnect with family and left with a wider view.
Photographs by James Barrott