NEWS for North Dakotans
Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo, ND 58105-5665
October 1, 1998
Plains Folk: Swallow Devotee
Tom Isern, Professor of History
North Dakota State University
©1998 Plains Folk
After reading "Swallow Summer," by Charles R. Brown, I watch swallows with greater knowledge and appreciation. The subject of this new book from University of Nebraska Press is not the barn swallow that nests in the eaves of our houses and outbuildings, nor the bank swallow in its stream-bank burrows, but rather the cliff swallow that today nests mainly in colonies under bridges and in culverts. Because they have adapted so well to the works of humankind, cliff swallows thrive throughout the length of the Great Plains.
The book is the story of an obsession. Brown, a biologist from the University of Tulsa, has studied cliff swallows in western Nebraska every summer for 15 years. He, his wife, and their assistants work out of the Cedar Point Biological Station on Keystone Lake, just below big Lake McConaughy.
They work hard. Throughout the years they have captured more than 80,000 swallows by setting mist nets at the entrances of colonies or dropping nets from above. The birds they band and recapture are the source of the sort of long-range data few field biologists ever accumulate. They're interested in why cliff swallows live in colonies, how large the colonies are, how the birds get along. It's not always a pretty picture. Parasitic insects figure largely in the lives of swallows. Bullsnakes break into nests and eat the babies. The birds also do many dirty deeds on one another, such as laying eggs in one another's nests.
It turns out that cliff swallows live in colonies mainly for the sake of finding food. When one returns with insects in his mouth, others follow him out again, resulting in group feeding. In fact, I started writing this column while watching fifty or so cliff swallows feed together above the bean field just south of our house.
Scientists prosper by writing grant proposals and journal articles, and so Brown's purpose in writing "Swallow Summer" is not professional advancement but rather to talk about doing science with a larger public. The casual reader cannot help but be impressed with the dedication and industry of the author. His swallow summer is every bit as hard as a wheat harvest.
I wonder, though, whether this sort of scientific focus requires a certain antisocial arrogance. This fellow seems to have trouble getting along with plains folk. He refers to them as "the locals," a piece of rhetorical condescension. When he runs afoul of a local game warden, he calls the officer "Bubba." When a rancher comes to tell him about some swallow colonies he had missed, he is amazed a mere local should know what he doesn't. At the rodeo in Ogallala, the scientists cheer for the calves, sympathizing with the animals that are being persecuted by the cowboys. The moral strength of their position is somewhat weakened by the circumstance that they spend their days catching thousands of little birds in nets.
As someone who spends a great deal of time in the field doing strange things in the name of scholarshiptry answering "folklorist" when someone asks your occupation!I wish guys like Brown would refrain from, pardon the expression, fouling the nest. But I still admire him. He does science the way a great ballplayer plays the game, that is, for the love of it. I just probably wouldn't stop to visit if I saw him tending a swallow net under a bridge somewhere.
Source: Tom Isern (701) 231-8339
Editor: Dean Hulse (701) 231-6136