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Flight Lesson

Friday, July 19, 2019

Twenty three days ago, the violet green swallow eggs in the feather-lined nest in my backyard birdbox hatched out five little nestlings. Given the small size of the white eggs, it was hardly surprising that the newborn birds were very tiny, and pink with sparse spots of fuzzy gray down. For me it was the beginning of over three weeks of entertainment. I not only got to watch the graceful parents swooping in to deliver food, but also to see the little ones grow. As they got bigger, the parents’ food deliveries became much more frequent, until recently, they seemed to be running a non-stop delivery service.

The nestling period for violet-green swallows is 23 – 24 days, so I’ve been trying to keep a close watch on them. I knew they were getting ready to fledge, because for the past few days, they’ve been sticking their heads out the entrance hole to check out the world. It must seem an incredible sight to a baby bird who has lived its entire life in a little box with its siblings, to see the sky for the first time. These small birds were doing a good job scoping things out. Little heads turning left and right, up and down.

This morning I was happy to see that they were still there. You have to be very lucky to catch the moment when a little bird leaves the nest, but I hoped that maybe I’d get lucky. I checked on them periodically throughout the day, sometimes seeing little beaks at the entrance hole, other times seeing parents delivering food. I finally decided that today was not the day and decided to enjoy my dinner out on the patio. The parents delivered food to the box while I ate, and the hummingbirds argued over who owned the feeder hanging from the patio roof.

Since the sunset was looking to be a good one, I lingered for a while on the patio. Glancing at the box, I noticed a little head peering out. Then the small bird uttered a call of two notes, and a nearby parent answered with the same two notes. They continued to call back and forth in a virtual duet as the parent flew closer to the box. Then, without warning, the nestling popped out of the box in a move that was half flight, half tumble. Righting itself in the air, it flew about two feet off the ground for a moment, then higher as the parent approached and flew next to it.

I expected the little bird to land somewhere nearby, but instead it flapped upward making small circles, while the parent followed. Its flight was fluttery, without the soaring glides that adults make, and I noticed this parent was doing the same fluttery flight. I wondered if I was watching a first flight lesson. The little bird and its parent flew higher and higher and for much longer than I imagined, then finally the parent settled the little one into a grove of trees about 200 yards away. It was interesting that during that entire flight, the parent only glided once. I guess the lesson was that you have to learn to flap before you can soar.
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