Tag Archives: cliff swallows

Devotion based on John J. Audubon’s Paintings from Birds of America

John J. Audubon studied and became an expert to paint birds for his book, Birds of America. We can study them, too, but often we’re in a hurry and don’t notice the birds flying around our own yards gobbling up insects.

In my previous post I said the encounter with those cliff swallows building nests on a West Texas hotel began my fascination with them. I started researching, and learned it was also cliff swallows that returned every year to the old mission of San Juan Capistrano in California.

Mission San Juan Capistrano, CA, author photo

Only they weren’t returning anymore, so the mission consulted a cliff swallow expert for help. For many years Dr. Charles R. Brown of the University of Tulsa has been studying cliff swallows along the Platte River in Nebraska, where thousands return each year to build or rebuild nests.

One spring I traveled to Nebraska and spent a day studying cliff swallow colonies with Dr. Brown and his assistant. The swallows still build nests on the cliffs that in places overlook the river (part of the Oregon Trail included crossing the Platte River, and some pioneers mentioned the swallows and their nests in diaries and letters).

But today many swallows take advantage of man made structures, so we had to tramp across fields to enter huge culverts while trains rumbled overhead and put on tall wading boots to get to nests under bridges.

I had learned a lot from my research, but it was exciting and fun to see them up close with someone who’s been studying them for years. When we walked under a bridge hundreds of swallows rushed out the other side, but soon they returned, swooping by us, and slipped back into their nests. They’d immediately turn around and poke their heads back out, the white spot on their foreheads shining in the dim light and letting everyone know they’re home.

I got to poke a long handled dental mirror into nests, while shining a flashlight just so, to see the eggs inside (not as easy as it sounds!). And we spent several hours baking in the sun while quietly observing the behavior of the swallows as they came and went from their nests.

Here’s some of what I learned that day about how God feeds just one of His many types of birds!

  • Cliff swallows winter in South America, so they fly thousands of miles to return each spring to the western prairies of the United States and Canada for breeding.
  • This kind of swallow lives in colonies that range in size from a few dozen nests to thousands honeycombing a cliff or under a bridge.
  • Cliff swallows like to return to the same places each year, but will periodically abandon some sites when these become too infested with parasites.
  • They eat insects, scooping them from the sky as they fly.
  • Cliff swallows need open fields and farmland where warm updrafts stir up insects for them to catch.
  • Snakes sometimes invade nest sites to feast on eggs and baby birds.
  • Cliff swallows will sometimes sneak into others’ nests to steal nesting material or even lay eggs.

One of the most fascinating ways God feeds cliff swallows is that the colony serves as a way for swallows to find those updrafts of insects. Dr. Brown has discovered that when a swallow returns with a mouthful of insects for its babies, other swallows will follow it when it leaves again so they can join the feast. The colony works a little like a computer clearing house for information.

And one thing Dr. Brown said that day has stayed with me. He believes that though many people go long distances to study various creatures, many of us can find and study amazing creatures close to home, even in our own back yards!

Birds are everywhere, and this time of year they are returning to build nests and raise families. Just today I saw a house finch gathering nesting materials in my back yard.

Take time to see the work of the first and best Artist! How many different types of birds share your backyard? Notice the patterns on their wings. Has God made their beak for seeds or worms?

“Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.” Psalm 111:2

If you can, get outside with your children. Take along a field guide and learn more about the birds in your neighborhood.

When we look carefully to “study” how God has designed each bird, we see that He gave each bird just the right beak, feet, body, tail, and wings to be able to gather its food in the environment He designed it for.

All birds have beaks and wings, but… God gave hummingbirds wings that beat super fast so they can hover and stick their long beaks deep into flowers to sip nectar. And He gave cliff swallows just the right beak and streamlined shape to be able to gather mud pellets for a nest and swoop through the sky to grab tasty insects.

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” Matt. 6:26

Jesus used God’s care of the birds to teach us that our heavenly Father knows our needs and provides for us just as He does the birds.

Jesus didn’t mean we shouldn’t pray about our needs. He tells us to do just that in the Lord’s Prayer, (Matthew 6:9-13). But He also wants us to realize we don’t have to keep worrying; we can pray and leave our worries about our daily needs with our heavenly Father. Jesus wants us to soar on to scoop up more important things—heavenly treasures from our Bibles that teach us how to love God and our neighbors.

Prayer: Thank you, Heavenly Father, for providing for our daily needs. When we look at the birds of the air, help us learn from them to trust You with every part of our lives! In Jesus’ name, amen.

Before You Go

If you’d like more activity ideas for art, history, and nature, curriculum connections, and links to more resources, be sure to sign up above for my newsletter and receive a free guide to 5 Ways Art Benefits Children’s Cognitive, Physical, Spiritual, and Social Development, with a Few Fun and Easy Activities for each Benefit

Visit my website where you’ll find free downloadable puzzles, how-to-draw pages and coloring pages for kids and an updated list of my hands-on workshops, chapels, and presentations for all ages.

Molly and I hope you enjoyed learning more about how God feeds the cliff swallows, and you’ll get out and enjoy learning about the birds in your own backyard! Come back next week for a fun art project about birds and to learn if swallows have returned to San Juan Capistrano.


John James Audubon, Painter of American Birds

The spring shower ended soon after we arrived at our hotel in West Texas, so we went out for a walk. Hundreds of small birds fluttering at the edges of muddy puddles drew our attention. At first we thought they were bathing, but when we looked at the hotel, we saw mud nests in various stages of construction honeycombing its walls. Nests the birds were building one mud pellet at a time.

This first encounter with cliff swallows began my fascination with them. John J. Audubon’s first encounter with cliff swallows also fascinated him. Here are a couple excerpts from his account of it in The Birds of America:

“In the spring of 1815, I for the first time saw a few individuals of this species at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio . . . . forming their nests and rearing their young. Unfortunately . . . the specimens were lost, and I despaired for years of meeting with others.”

“In the year 1819, my hopes were revived by Mr. ROBERT BEST, curator of the Western Museum at Cincinnati, who informed me that a strange species of bird had made its appearance in the neighbourhood, building nests in clusters, affixed to the walls. . . . I immediately crossed the Ohio to Newport, in Kentucky, where he had seen many nests the preceding season; and no sooner were we landed than the chirruping of my long-lost little strangers saluted my ear. Numbers of them were busily engaged in repairing the damage done to their nests by the storms of the preceding winter. ”

Audubon goes on to describe their building activities:

“About day-break they flew down to the shore of the river, one hundred yards distant, for the muddy sand, of which the nests were constructed, and worked with great assiduity until near the middle of the day, as if aware that the heat of the sun was necessary to dry and harden their moist tenements.”

You can find a fuller account of his experiences studying cliff swallows and other birds on the Audubon website,https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/republican-or-cliff-swallow#

Audubon gave as much attention to every bird he studied. It became his life’s work to find, paint, and describe the habits of as many American birds as he could.

Read on to:

  • Find helpful vocabulary
  • Learn more about John James Audubon and his life work
  • See activities to help you and your children explore and enjoy Audubon’s paintings
  • A cute photo of Molly, the Artsy Corgi


These words, which will be in bold green the first time they come up, will help you and your children talk more easily about different parts of a painting.

  • Ornithology (adj. ornithological), the scientific study of birds
  • Engraving (v. engraved), a print made from a metal plate in which the lines of the image have been cut

The Artist

John J. Audubon was a naturalist and artist who came from France in 1803 at the age of 18 to farm in the United States. He neglected the farming to explore the countryside and study and sketch animals, especially birds. He spent hours observing their habits. One night he even squeezed inside a huge hollow tree so he could observe and count the thousands of swifts that roosted inside it.

Before modern-day banding was thought of, Audubon tied threads around bird’s legs and discovered that many birds came back to the same nesting spots each year. Audubon gave up farming and moved to Kentucky to open a store on the frontier. For a while his business was successful, but it failed in 1819, and after that he began taking long treks through the forests to study, sketch, and gather specimens.

European ornithological books didn’t contain many American bird species, so Audubon decided to publish his paintings and descriptions. No one in this country was willing to publish such an expensive work (Audubon wanted his birds to be as close to life-size as possible, and each of his watercolor paintings had to be engraved for printing and then hand-painted).

In 1826 Audubon sailed to England. He hired a printer and financed the project by selling subscriptions to the book, which came out 5 prints at a time. Wealthy patrons, including the queen of England and the king of France, bought subscriptions. At that time, the whole book of 435 engravings cost about $1,000. In 2000, with only about 100 of the original 176 complete books left, mostly in museums or libraries, one sold at auction for $8.8 million.

The Paintings

Birds in most paintings before Audubon’s time were drawn from stuffed specimens, and they looked it. Audubon’s early drawings looked similar, but as he studied the birds and practiced drawing and painting, he began to paint birds in much more natural poses. He also added plants from the bird’s habitat, and accurate portrayals of their nests as with the cliff swallows.

Cliff Swallows by Julius Bien after John J. Audubon, Smithsonian American Art Museum, public domain

Though Audubon’s paintings were also well-designed artistically, he never lost sight of the purpose of showing the birds accurately. Take these barn swallows. As required for a field guide, we can see their beaks, their feet, and their markings from every angle, but the dramatic design of the raised wing gives movement to the painting. And the two strongly forked tails mirror each other and contrast with the background.

Barn Swallows by Julius Bien after John J. Audubon, Smithsonian American Art Museum, public domain

Many of Audubon’s paintings have lots of drama. In this painting of Virginia partridges, a red-tailed hawk attacks the nesting birds. The partridges scatter in every direction, while the hawk’s wings form a dramatic pattern against the sky.

Virginian Partridge, plate 76 by John J. Audubon, public domain

Audubon wanted even the largest birds to be shown almost life-size, and fitting them on a page often produced some very modern-looking graphic designs. Look at the flamingo with its long neck echoing the bends of its legs to reach down to the water. It’s a design that catches our attention!

American Flamingo by John J. Audubon, Brooklyn Museum, public domain

Activities to Help You and Your Children further Explore these Beautiful Paintings

  • Before doing any other activities, ask children to tell what’s going on in the paintings. Some birds are nesting, others are feeding or fleeing. Enhance their observational and verbal skills by rephrasing words and adding new vocabulary.
  • These paintings by Audubon provide many opportunities to compare and contrast bird nests, beaks, feet and legs, and color combinations and patterns, and see how God fit each bird exactly right for its environment so it could find food, have materials for nesting and avoid predators. For example, the explosion of partridges from the nest could confuse the hawk, allowing many to get away.
  • Ask them which painting is their favorite and why.
  • Talk with them about the amount time Audubon must have taken to observe and create these accurate and colorful paintings. Do they think they’d have the patience for that kind of work?

Before You Go

If you’d like more activity ideas for art, history, and nature, curriculum connections, and links to more resources, be sure to sign up for my newsletter above and receive a free guide to 5 Ways Art Benefits Children’s Cognitive, Physical, Spiritual, and Social Development, with a Few Fun and Easy Activities for each Benefit

Visit my website where you’ll find free downloadable puzzles, how-to-draw pages and coloring pages for kids and an updated list of my hands-on workshops, chapels, and presentations for all ages.

Molly and I hope you enjoyed John James Audubon’s paintings. We hope you’ll come back for a devotion based on these next week! To be sure not to miss a post you can sign up for my blog above.

On the lookout for birds near the marsh last summer.



Writing about Nature in a Sketchbook

If you’ve visited my website http://www.kathy-oneill.com then you know that last year I went to western Nebraska to  learn more about cliff swallows. I’d seen them building mud nests all over a hotel in the Texas panhandle. 

With cliff swallow expert Dr. Charles Brown of Tulsa University and his assistant, Wes and I trekked through fields and waded into culverts. Using a flashlight and a dental mirror I got to peer into their mud nests and see their eggs! Dr. Brown has been studying cliff swallows for many years and has learned lots and lots of fascinating stuff about these birds that live together in colonies.  Don’t miss the good news about my trip and research at the end of this post!!!

And look carefully for Molly, too, and make a guess about why she’s hiding!

Before I traveled to Nebraska, I made notes about what I had already seen and heard, asked questions about my observations, and did some initial research.


Using these steps you can learn more about the plants and creatures you’ve been observing on your walks:

  1. Stand still and carefully observe, take photos, make drawings
  2. Make written notes about what you see and hear
  3. Ask questions about what you observe
  4. Look in books and safe, reputable online sources to answer your questions

1. Notes

In my last post I suggested you leave some white space around pictures in your sketchbook, because one of the easiest places to write about nature is to make notes in those white spaces. Here are some things to make notes about:

  • Where you were, what the land was like–forest, meadow, seaside, rocky, hilly, etc.
  • What kind of trees or plants you saw
  • What the weather was like
  • The things you saw, heard, smelled
  • The colors of plants or animals you focused on
  • Tell what you think creatures were doing

Here in my new neighborhood in Colorado is a large marsh, and since early spring when they first arrived, I’ve been watching hundreds of red-winged blackbirds. Here are some photos of the marsh and as close as I can get pictures of  the birds.  Because I couldn’t get closeups of the birds I drew one from a nature guide. But you can see my notes all around the drawing about the place and the birds.

2. Questions

Questions help focus your research. As you research you’ll probably think of more. Here are some I had about red-winged blackbirds:

  • Do only the males have the red and yellow shoulder colors?
  • Where did they migrate from or do they live in Colorado year round?
  • What do they eat?
  • Where do they build their nests?
  • What do their nests look like?
  • How many eggs do they lay
  • what do the eggs look like?

3. Research to answer your questions.

  • The nonfiction section of your library is a great place to start. Birds have a whole section, as do insects, mammals, fish, etc., etc!!
  • If you go online, be sure to use safe and reputable websites. For example for my questions about the cliff swallows and now the red-winged blackbirds, I start with the national audubon society’s website.  http://www.audubon.org
  • Use the blank pages of your sketchbook to write the information you find. Make notes about where you found the info

Have fun finding out about lots of interesting creatures or plants. God is so creative, and His world is amazing beyond our wildest imaginations!!

NOW…. my news:   I enjoyed finding out some amazing things about cliff swallows and then wrote a nonfiction article about them. It has been bought by a children’s magazine! I haven’t heard when it’ll be published, so I won’t tell you which one yet, but I’m excited, and I’ll let you know when it comes out!

What can you do with all your new knowledge? write a report, write a fiction story, make an informational poster , write an email or letter to a distant relative telling about your experiences….  For a few ideas, stay tuned for the Picture Lady’s next post. It’ll give you some ideas about how to write creatively about all your observations!

So don’t forget to sign up to receive the Picture Lady’s posts before you go!

AND check out my website http://www.kathy-oneill.com

There you’ll see lots of ways that I can help your class or group in person or by skype learn about and make art!!

And I’d love to hear from you about your summer nature walks and studies!

Finally, can you find Molly in this photo? Comment and tell me why you think she’s hiding.

I’ll tell you why in my next post.