Two weeks ago I had one of the most magical experiences of my life. I was walking across Albert Park, in Melbourne’s south, on a windy but clear Sunday afternoon, and I found myself in the midst of a small flock of swallows. No doubt you’re all familiar with those miniature whirlwinds that pick up from time to time, scattering leaves and dust and plastic bags; in the US they’re called dust devils, but in Australia we call them willy-willies, and when I was a child my schoolmates and I used to love darting towards them, trying to place ourselves in the still eye of the tiny storm. When I walked into the flock of swallows it was not unlike stepping into a willy-willy: I stood where I was, and grinned in delight as the tiny birds flitted and darted all around me, less than a metre off the ground.
They were Welcome Swallows, and it’s hard to think of a more apt name for a species of animal than that. There can’t be a person in the world who doesn’t welcome the sight of a swallow – although an encyclopaedia of superstitions that I bought many years ago relates that in Ireland and Scotland they were traditionally associated with the devil, while in other places they could be an omen of death. Still, even those grim associations are outweighed by the good: the same book lists protection from fire and lightning, the curing of blindness and epilepsy, and good fortune in love as among the swallow’s good omens and beneficial effects.
Those of us of a slightly more rationalist bent can be satisfied with just being happy to see them, though. The Welcome Swallow is closely related to the Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), which is well-known throughout the world. As with many Australian animals it’s the most familiar of its kind in this country by virtue of the fact that it’s common on the eastern seaboard, where most Australians live, but the White-backed Swallow (Cheramoeca leucosterna), the Tree Martin (Hirundo nigricans), and Fairy Martin (the beautifully named Hirundo ariel) are all distributed across at least as much of the country. (Incidentally, although taxonomically there’s no difference between them, birds in the family Hirundinidae are defined as swallows or martins depending on the length of their tales: those with long, forked tails are called swallows, while those with short, squarish tails are called martins.)
Swallows have a long association with humans, and the Welcome Swallow is no different: outside the cities in particular a house in Australia is hardly complete without a Welcome Swallow’s nest tucked up under the eaves. Many species of swallow nest in excavated holes, but most people if they have an idea of a swallow’s nest at all will picture a beautiful mud nest: a delicate cup, or sometimes a more elaborate shape, made by layer upon layer of mud which the bird painstakingly dabs on with its beak. You can see each layer clearly, like lines of sediment in a rock, and if you look closely you may even see inside the nest a bed of specially collected feathers, and when swallows nest under the eaves of a house the proximity to our own home of such a carefully built shelter is both cheering and humbling.
There used to be a pair of Welcome Swallows nesting under the eaves above the front door of my parents’ holiday house. They’d return to that nest every year without fail, and raise another brood of young – sometimes two or even three broods in one season. Every year we’d look forward to their arrival, and the sight of them flying in and out of that nest so fast, so close to the house, was breathtaking. We got used to the comfortable progression of the lives of those birds: first the arrival; then the gradual restoration of the nest; then the long period in which the female of the pair laid and then incubated the eggs while her mate flew back and forth to feed her; then, at last, the hatching, and the frantic activity of both parents, and the extravagant begging of their offspring every time one of the adult swallows returned to the nest.
One year, though, one of the hatchlings fell out of the nest. It died, and whether by coincidence or not the next year the swallows didn’t return. To the best of my knowledge they never have. The nest is still there, still tucked securely under the eaves, unoccupied and unused for many years, and it’s heartbreaking to think of the swallows abandoning the nest after the death of one of their offspring. It’s heartbreaking also to think that by now both the adult swallows must surely be dead: because we shared our life with them for a little while. Their lives became part of ours.
The presence of animals is not essential to our lives. We can get by perfectly well without wild birds to admire, or pets to talk to when we’re feeling lonely or light-hearted. If you want to be very honest about it the only things we really need to keep ourselves alive are shelter and food. Everything else is extraneous.
What a miserable life it would be, though, if we were to jettison everything that didn’t serve some base physiological purpose in keeping us alive. How much less our lives would be. It’s a selfish way to value an animal, considering only how it improves our lives, but like most creatures we humans are fundamentally self-interested and I don’t think we should be ashamed if our first thought upon seeing a an animal such as a swallow is how happy it makes us. We try very hard to distance ourselves from nature, we imagine ourselves as something apart from our fellow animals, and we learn to identify the animals we see and we classify each one painstakingly as if the whole world was some kind of open-air museum, because it’s in our nature to be both curious and inquisitive. When swallows choose to build their nests against our own homes we tend to think of it as nature making a welcome intrusion into our lives – but in fact, nature never intrudes. It’s a constant. Whether it’s the bacteria in our intestines, the cat (Felis catus) sitting on my lap and purring as I type this, or the Australian native violet which, for the last six months, has been pushing through the walls of my house, we’re so intrinsically connected to an infinite and all-encompassing ecosystem that we barely even notice it. When it comes to comparing humans to other animals, the ageless question is “What makes humans unique?” It’s a curious question, though. Is it so important to be unique? Is it so important to place ourselves apart from the rest of the natural world? By doing so, might we not lose a significant part of ourselves?
The swallows that flew about me that Sunday two weeks ago were marvellously indifferent to my presence. Perhaps it delighted them to fly so close to me, to use me as some station around which to manoeuvre. I’d like to imagine so. Of course, a swallow must be as concerned as any other animal with simply surviving each day, and it’s likely that my being there was entirely incidental to them – after all, they had the security of knowing that a creature such as me could never be fast enough to pose a threat to them. Surely it’s not too much of a stretch, though, to imagine a swallow, well-fed and on a fair day, sometimes just taking wing, and enjoying the sensation of arcing and swerving through the air.
Image by David Cook, sourced from http://www.canberrabirds.org.au/