Swallows' songs stir memories of birdhouse clamor

Saturday's equinox made it official. Spring is in the air.

Laid low for the past few weeks with a bad case of the Dreaded Gungybungus, I've spent some time pondering the inevitability of change — in between sucking on various inhalers, gobbling steroids and ingesting antibiotics.

I'll spare you the gory details of my plague, except to say I have developed a new appreciation for the miracle that is oxygen. Sadly, my African gray parrot has added several disgusting noises to her repertoire of party tricks. Gaia now gurgles like an old-time coffee percolator, wheezes like an underheated tea kettle, and has acquired a lovely cough that would put a seal's bark to shame. "Hack ... hack ... hack ... gurgle ... gasp ... wheeze ...

"Oh geeeeez!" Gaia finally spews.

Must we mock Mommy in her hour of weakness, BabyGirl?

"Hehehe," my red-tailed mimic replies.

Thankfully not all of Gaia's newest vocalizations are inspired from what she heard within the confines of our tiny riverside abode. She also has mastered a wild bird's song. A two-note slide-whistle. I think it might be a robin's call. But I'm really not certain. There's a lot of feathers flying around our parts these days.

Canada geese are pairing up, enjoying the sunshine on smooth-stone shores. Mallard couples are sneaking off into my rosebushes. Goldfinches hang from thistle feeders. Hummingbirds flit by my windows. Crows, robins and some chubby speckle-breasted bird I've yet to identify hop about on my lawn.

A pair of starlings spent last Saturday stripping old nesting material out of two birdhouses hanging within Gaia's view. Dozens of downy feathers and various lengths of twigs, all carefully gathered last spring by the house sparrows, were tossed to the winds and drifted like flotsam onto the deck.

My parrot watched goggle-eyed and hooted with delight. I couldn't help cheering along with her. The big, bad starlings were ousting the pushy house sparrows.

Truth to tell, part of me was glad to see it. For seven years I've watched beautiful little teal and buff tree swallows raise new families in the red, hand-painted nest box that swings under my cottage's eaves. They also nested in a little green birdhouse attached to a nearby ash tree.

I love the swallows' sweet little songs, their iridescent colors, their impressive aerobatic displays. My favorite thing is sitting on the deck as the babies take their first flight. This most amazing annual event makes me laugh, cry and hold my breath all at the same time.

The chunky little sparrow monsters invaded my beloved swallows' homes two years ago. My friends tried to stand their ground. The patriarch of my favorite breed stood guard on the curving iron rod that has been his lookout post for many a spring and summer. His bride barely left the nest.

But the sparrows eventually managed to muscle out my little swallows. They tossed out nesting material. And, ultimately, they evicted the swallows' unfledged babies. It was grim and grisly.

Still, my little river-flyers didn't give up. They sneaked into the ash-tree nest box after the sparrows raised their brood and produced a final clutch of swallow babies. They also took over the large and empty wood-duck box attached to the 50-year-old poplar tree down by the river.

The wood ducks ditched the box a decade ago after I arrived with three monstrous hounds in tow. Each year I've hoped the beautiful little ducks would reconsider. But apparently no self-respecting woody wants their fuzzy little offspring to jump onto a lawn filled with slavering hairy beasts. (A strange little mallard hen did successfully nest in the crook of the Goose Tree for two years straight. But that's a story for another day.)

I was happy to see a new clutch of swallows springing from the wood ducks' former home last summer. My Sis got a great photo of three little gaping mouths lined up in the oval doorway one fine day.

I don't know which species will ultimately win this game of musical birdhouses. People have suggested I simply remove all the nest boxes in an effort to thwart the sparrows and starlings. But I don't think I will. I'm still waiting on the wood ducks. And rooting for the swallows.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497; e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com; or follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/RogueRiverMuse.

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