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.
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.
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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.