Marital Bliss?

Observing wild birds, especially during the breeding season, reminds me how closely related we are to other species.

At the beginning of the breeding season, Tree Swallow pairs must find a suitable nesting site. It can be a “natural” cavity, or one that was excavated by a woodpecker, but which is no longer used by the original developer. It can also be a man-made nest box. Selection of the perfect location for the nest is just the beginning of what can appear (in my human brain) to be a very intricate relationship between two birds.

The male and female Tree Swallows have different roles to achieve the same goal; successfully rearing the young that will contribute to their genetic immortality. Clearly, only the female can lay the eggs. She also incubates them. But, the male plays a role in protecting the nest. I have observed that behavior many times in Tree Swallows and Bluebirds.

It takes dedication and skills to successfully fledge a brood, especially when one considers all of the external stressors which can completely detail the pair’s effort to see their chicks leave the nest. The challenges that a pair of Tree Swallows must face – from dealing with shifts in the weather, nest site competition, nest site take-overs by House Sparrow and House Wrens (I’ve seen both), securing sufficient food for the hungry chicks – are too great to count. It truly makes me wonder if an additional stress also occurs. I’m talking about “marital stress.” Does a female Tree Swallow “worry” that her mate won’t protect her and their precious eggs from an invasive species? Does a male Tree Swallow concern himself with whether his mate will lay a good sized clutch of eggs?

Take a look at these photos and you may understand why such thoughts have even entered my brain.

This is nest box 39, newly erected last fall after the breeding season ended. It’s located at the pond’s edge. Earlier this year I filmed a Bluebird pair scoping out the box, but I never saw the female enter. However, I did find the beginnings of a nest. Yesterday, I observed this Tree Swallow pair in what seems to me the early stages of deciding whether they want to use this box to rear their first brood of the season.

At first, they seem to be scoping out the general nature of the box; can they fly on and off of it with ease?

But, I filmed a sequence of very humorous exchanges that – if you let your human brain put words to the many vocalizations, head turns and I can even see a few eye-rolls – made me wonder how blissful this relationship is going to be!

Those images were taken about once per second with a few longer durations when I had to prevent the camera from exceeding its buffer capacity. In my human brain, I can think of a few exchanges which would work to explain the birds’ conversation:

“Why don’t you like it? It’s the exact measurements you said you wanted!”

— “Yes, but you said it was on the water, I figured we’d be able to see the pond from the front entry! You know I have to sit on those eggs for over two weeks straight!”

“But, you said you wanted it to face west so you can watch the sun set!”

Silence and a head turn.

As far as what that couple is actually saying, you may be the judge and provide your own captions. Or, you can be reasonable and tell me, “Hey, Tammie, those birds can’t help that they have to vocalize out of a pointy, hard shelled beak! Maybe they are speaking sweet words to each other, and it just looks “angry” because, to a human they appear to be shouting!

Regardless of our ability to interpret what the Tree Swallows may be trying to convey in their chirps (which, by the way actually sound sweet and positive in tenor), I am just grateful that I am able to encounter nature with such ease and in such close proximity to my back door. Spending time hanging out observing birds as a stress reliever is a very powerful experience for me. That’s why I like to share here on my blog.

I wanted the last images you see to be of the Tree Swallow pair having a little cuddle and looking sweetly into each other’s eyes and gazing toward that sunset together.

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