About a month ago, on the little harbor-side beach we have frequented for over forty years, I noticed a couple of swallows. Tree Swallows, I thought, or Barn Swallows – the two most commonly seen. But, no, their dingy brown plumage and squared-off tails identified them as Northern Rough-wing Swallows, a species I had never noticed in this particular spot before.
And there were just two: a pair. Thereafter, I would see one or perhaps both, always in this same area.
I finally saw one swallow swoop down and enter a drain pipe that exited the concrete bulkhead under the deck of an elegant house on the beach. I found it! I found the nest. Obviously this drain pipe was not draining anything, but it concerned me that it opened out just a couple of feet above the high tide mark.
On my visits to the beach after that discovery, I listened to their “zit-zit” calls, and occasionally saw them enter the drain pipe. I thought I had something unusual, but then I checked a field guide and read: “often near water; nesting in holes in quarries, river banks, cliffs, and man-made structures.” So much for a rare discovery.
Then, one day on the beach at low tide, I heard a different quality of “zit-zit”- higher, and more persistent. I investigated the area around the pipe and found two small baby swallows, settled on a pile of eel grass directly under the drain pipe. They had large dark eyes and impossibly large mouths, the gapes framed in yellow (the better to be fed into, of course.)
The next morning I woke with a start just before 6 am: the tide! The tide might have washed the babies out to sea! I very much doubt that they were fledged. I should have placed them up on the deck, out of harm’s way. I should have built some sort of little platform, or at least piled up the seaweed a few feet higher. I raced over to the beach, only to find the receding waters and piles and piles of soaked eelgrass- no swallows, young or adult. I searched the area for bodies, to no avail.
Dejected, doubting my inaction, I came upon Chris, the neighborhood philosopher: “Don’t beat yourself up,” he said. “You can’t play God. Swallows that make bad nest choices need to be weeded out of the gene pool. You have to let Nature play out.” Perhaps he is right. If the young were taken by a Peregrine Falcon I wouldn’t have felt so distraught. But the inexorable, unforgiving tide? A simple boost would have bested it. The thought of those two birds flying all the way from South America, catching hundreds or thousands of insects- and then all their efforts to have been in vain: it disturbed me.
What was my proper role in this drama? To be involved? Not to be involved?
In this modern age, in which the bird feeder industry represents billions of dollars a year, when Wildcare saves babies of all species, when IFAW helps stranded dolphins and the Center for Coastal Studies rescues entangled whales, when people scoop turtles off highways…what IS the role of the human in the natural world? After all, would any one of these creatures reciprocate? No.
Why do I take it upon myself to want to intervene? Is this some sort of psychological complex? A Messiah complex? I am reminded of Holden Caufield in “The Catcher in the Rye”, “standing on the edge of some crazy cliff” catching the little children who run through the fields of rye if they get too close to the edge. “That’s all I’d do all day,” he says.
I return again and again to the beach. On my last visit; a single swallow flew above the waves.