The Hawk and the Swallow
Understand this: I had thought long and hard about birds. I had once, in fact, been a Fisheries and Wildlife major. I’d worked at a wildlife research center, fed waterfowl, cut up mice for raptors, taken blood from the veined wings of ducks, and, I’m sorry to say, “sacrificed” them for research purposes. The point is, I wasn’t a shrinking violet, and I’d paid a certain kind of attention, but I was a sucker for the Big and Dramatic — namely predatory birds like the osprey, the red-tailed hawk, the bald eagle. Raptors Magnificus floated my boat, especially in the Wide Open Spaces of the American West. My father, however, though he was a manly ex-fighter pilot and admirer of John Wayne, preferred a bird I frequently overlooked: the purple martin.
A nondescript swallow, I thought. A bird smaller than my hand, the male is the only swallow with a completely dark plumage, glossy blue-black above and below. The female has a similar back, but her chest and belly are a dingier gray-brown. In certain light, the bird’s glossy dark back looks purple — thus the name. In the air, they sometimes seemed to swarm, but each individual’s flight was difficult for me to follow. They were so small and fast that I couldn’t keep my binoculars trained on them for long. I much preferred the big hawks whose movements I could often make out with no field glasses at all.
Yet my father was fascinated by them.
He’d majored in zoology at the University of Kansas, finishing up what was left of his Navy-funded education around 1960, when I was a toddler. Later he’d taught me how to pay attention to the natural world. Sycamore trees had the big broad distinctive leaves and the peeley bark. Loblolly pines were the tall slim-trunked trees with the needles I had to rake constantly from the grass in our yard. The big tree I climbed in the side yard was a maple. He showed me how to use field guides and identify the songbirds that congregated at the feeders in our backyards. Bright red cardinals (my mother’s favorite) with their peaked caps were easy. Fussy jays often left behind bright blue feathers. Robins bobbed and hunted worms in the driveway after a rainstorm. Sparrows and towhees were common, but when the hawk-sized pileated woodpecker showed up, both my parents shouted for all to come and see. Perhaps because of this family value on nature, and the trailering we did as a family of five — once all the way across the country from California to Virginia — I’d developed a passion for the outdoors and spent hours in the Tidewater of Virginia daydreaming about how to get out West for a Rocky Mountain High. Indeed, John Denver’s album was among my first when I was coming of age in the 1970s. Birdneck Point, Bird Sanctuary, as our neighborhood announced itself, was lovely, but I wanted more drama in my life.
Thus, the road took me West, where I could sit on cliff edges and watch ravens soar and play on the wind. Red-tailed hawks flew low over the sagebrush, then arced upward into the sky, where they circled with their mates. Bald eagles and osprey hung out in the trees by the river or over the mountains along the Puget Sound. Osprey in particular built huge impressive stick nests on telephone poles in the open spaces near rivers and lakes. If I had to be reincarnated, I wanted to come back as an osprey. The joy, for me, was to be able to see over wide expanses of sky populated by one or two big soaring birds tracing the movement of the wind.
Who wanted to watch the nondescript swallows?
Yet, when I went back to Virginia, where my parents now lived on a 90-acre“gentleman’s farm” in the Shenandoah Valley, and allowed myself to enter “retirement time” with my parents — that less-hurried, less-harried lifestyle I both dreaded and desired — I was intrigued by the colony of purple martins living in the two apartment houses my father had erected for them. Standing next to their houses, I craned my head back and watched them. Indeed, they were aerially acrobatic as they pursued a swarm of insects. Flying around each other expertly, they’d appear to be on collision course and then tilt their wings for a miss. They’d flap their wings and then sail, flap and sail, beautifully proportioned, streamlined, not unlike miniature planes with their outstretched triangular wings.
Arthur C. Bent’s 1942 monograph for the Smithsonian Institution offers Witmer Stone’s 1937 description of the martin’s flight:
Now one of them turns in his course and passes close to my head, swift as an arrow and uncanny in his blackness, which has no relieving spot of white, not even on the belly. . . . Again he will mount upward with rapid strokes of his narrow pointed wings only to return again to the lower level on a long sloping sail. Sometimes at the very summit of the ascent he will come about into the wind and remain stationary, on rapidly beating wings, before sliding away on the long downward sail. When flying high over the town, late in the summer, the Martins’ mastery of the air is particularly noticeable.
Mastery of the air. A marvelous phrase, descriptive not only of the martins but also of the males in my family. My father had flown one of the first jets — the F9F Panther jet — for the Navy during the Korean War, my brother flew the F-14 years later. Both of them landed and took off from carrier decks, making postage-stamp landings as the ship’s surface moved up and down on the heaving waves. I didn’t want to imagine it, much less execute it. For me, the only flights were flights on which I was a passenger, or — more frequently — flights of fancy.
In fact, my role in the family was determined early on: my father said I was the best dreamer. As a girl, I do remember wishing I could fly. Someone told me if I ate a carton of Morton’s salt, I could do it. Not the big round carton, but a miniature size, as the vodka bottle on an airplane is to the larger version. I loved salt, so it wasn’t hard. After I downed the full container, I climbed a few feet up on a ladder and jumped. Gravity, of course, proved stronger than the flight of fancy.
My father, as a boy, made cardboard wings and ran down the alleyways in Altoona, Pennsylvania, trying to catch the wind. He built model planes from balsa wood and glue and found himself glued, also, to World War II movies. In fact, he volunteered to join the Navy toward the end of the war, at age seventeen, in Philadelphia, but it wasn’t until the Cold War, after a couple of years at the University of Pennsylvania, that he trained in earnest as a Navy pilot, going on to fly in combat in the Korean War.
Beyond the blue rectangular pool surrounded by red brick, drinking our pre-dinner drinks, my parents and I could see the big barn painted a warm beige — my mother’s choice. The roof had flown off that barn once during a storm, nearly hitting my ex-fighter-pilot father inside his truck at the pasture gate. It surely would have killed him, but instead it plowed into a tractor shed — another moment of the sheer unadulterated luck that has followed him (so far) through life. The very day he was sworn into the Navy in 1945, he emerged from the building to find that World War II was over: it was VJ Day. Some years later, he was called from the cockpits of two different airplanes because, as a pilot with an instrument rating, he was needed to fly a different craft. After his replacement pilot took off, each original airplane had a mechanical failure, killing the unfortunate substitutes in separate crashes. The Navy, said my father, had orders to keep flying the aging planes, although they needed replacing. At that point, my father decided to quit flying and asked for reassignment to the Supply Corps.
He tells the story in summary — a rendering that, like the government documents he had to write and sign — leaves out the drama and horror of what he must have felt when he heard of his compatriots’ deaths. He knew what a dead pilot looked like. He’d been in charge of “clean up” after airplane crashes when he was stationed at Kingsville, Texas after the war. While at that post, he met my mother, a high school English teacher, in Corpus Christi.
All these years later, my mother listens to his story from her patio chair. Dressed in a red scoop-necked T-shirt and white capris, she holds onto her iced Manhattan, looking like a woman at a cocktail party with her shiny silver bangs and red lipstick. Her eyes still get wide when she says, “He had the keys to the King Ranch. No one had the keys to the King Ranch.” She gives her head a shake, her hair catching the evening light. The King Ranch in South Texas — an acreage the size of Rhode Island still home to some 60,000 cattle and 300 Quarter Horses — only offered its 150 years of history to the public during visiting hours. To be given the keys to such a place was impressive indeed.
My father shrugs. At 82, he’s thinner than ever, though he still does 50 crunches and push-ups a day, lifts weights, plays tennis and golf, gardens, repairs fences and tractors and keeps the place shipshape. He’s not a big man — maybe 5’10” and 150 pounds — but he’s always been determined, persistent, his blue eyes shining. Those blue eyes have always been ablaze with his various passions, whether they be the glory days of his flying, the richness of his garden, the excellence of my mother or the purple martins. “I had to have the keys to get in if there was a crash,” he recounts.
“I thought that was a terrible thing to do to an aviator,” says my mother.
“It didn’t bother me,” my father responds. “I loved flying.”
Watching the swallows swoop and skim to drink from the swimming pool before they chased insects in loops and wingovers, nearly colliding but never touching, as they joyfully found their suppers, I thought perhaps that was how my father dealt with sorrow — dip, taste if you must, then fly away. Don’t give yourself over to the depths of what touches you. Instead, take to the sky, to the joy of flight. It helps, of course, if you’re lucky.
IN FACT, SWALLOWS are said to bring luck. Their arrival portends springtime. They appear on flowering branches in Chinese paintings and are the harbinger of new love in Egyptian poetry. The Egyptian Book of the Dead instructs the deceased how to transform into a swallow, and the ancient Greeks and Romans believed the souls of dead children live on in the bodies of swallows. For pilgrims on their way to Mecca, the swallow is a symbol of fidelity: before people knew the birds migrated to Brazil, Muslims thought they went to Mecca.
Although some cultures warn that a swallow flying through the house portends bad luck, seamen welcome them on board as a sign of approaching land. Migrating between South and North America, of course, swallows range be far out to sea. Seamen who’ve sailed more than 5,000 miles wear a swallow tattoo; two swallow tattoos equal 10,000 miles, and a swallow with a knife through its heart is a memorial for a friend lost at sea. Thus, the largest swallow, the purple martin, is an appropriate favorite for my retired-Navy father.
FOR ME, ON the other hand, the tattooed swallow once signaled danger. As a teenager in Virginia Beach, sitting in my bikini on a towel, I frequently had to figure out how to ward off invasion by swallow-armed sailors who didn’t realize (or didn’t care) that I was underage.
I have other associations to overcome. Considering the martins from the farmhouse porch as they perched on an electrical wire against the evening sky, I saw something familiar in their heart-shaped silhouettes: weren’t they the cartoon birds that helped damsels in distress like Cinderella and Snow White? In my Golden Book circa 1965, Snow White rests her elbows on the windowsill to look out, and a songbird perches on her finger. This is the image of all that is good and pure from the Good Housekeeping era: the pale, raven-haired, wasp-waisted heroine keeping house and enjoying the quiet while her miniature men earn a living. In this Garden of Eden, pre-poisoned-apple moment, Snow White’s joyful submission to the drudgery of housework puts her in harmony with the swallows and songbirds, warbling their helpful melodies. She’s the happy bauble awaiting the return of her asexual men. It’s an image of entrapment that the feminist in me rejects. Unlike my father, I have never associated swallows with freedom.
My father latched onto the swallows just as he was making his own transition from the air to the ground. He was going to college at University of Kansas in 1960-61 when a biology teacher offered purple martin houses to interested students and urged them to observe the inhabitants. My father, wishing to identify particular birds, loaded paintbrushes and mounted them above each apartment entrance to mark the birds’ feathers. He and my mother named the birds. When my Texan grandmother came to visit, she became so fascinated by the project that she got up at 4 a.m. to make notes about the birds’ behavior. Although I was just a toddler and have no memory of it, my parents’ stories of their time in Lawrence, Kansas is integrally connected in my mind with their passion for the purple martins, and I can’t help but associate the open skies and green hills of Kansas with my parents’ youthful enthusiasm for these swallows.
My father’s neighbors have erected purple martin houses to no avail on their woodsier lots, but the birds prefer my parents’ place, with its superior airspace. They like the electrical wires, which provide easy perches near their “apartments.” In fact, my father chose to install overhead rather than underground wires because he was thinking of the birds. The Big Sky, as my parents call it, is a feature they sought for my mother, too, when they bought their 90-acre gentleman’s farm and named it Riverbend. Though, as the daughter of an Air Force man and wife of a Navy pilot, my mother is a bit of a migrant herself, she grew up mostly in Arizona and Texas and feels most at home where she can see the horizon.
IN THE EASTERN U.S., purple martins used to nest in tree or cliffside cavities, but they quickly came to prefer artificial dwellings, and now they nest exclusively in human-made high-rise houses raised up on poles or wires. My father has two such structures mounted at 11 and 14 feet, each with about nine “apartments.” Martins in the Western U.S. are more traditional: they still use their ancestral dwellings, supplemented by hollowed gourds people provide.
Griggsville, Illinois, advertises the purple martin as “America’s Most Wanted Bird.” Its town center features a 70-foot, 562-apartment high-rise for purple martins and a martin house on nearly every street corner. Not surprisingly, its main industry is the manufacture of martin houses by a company called Nature House, Inc., started by nature lover and former antennae manufacturer J.L. Wade. During the pesticide worries of the 1960s, martins were thought to be good controllers of mosquitoes, but a study done by the Purple Martin Society concluded that, although martins consume a wide variety of flying insects — dragonflies, damselflies, flies, midges, grasshoppers, Japanese beetles — they don’t eat many mosquitoes.
An “Animal Planet” video clip shows an Ohio couple who remind me of my parents — attractive and apparently affluent, the gray-haired pair dressed in matching khaki shorts and tidy round-collared knit shirts (hers pink and his blue) and white tennis shoes. A knee-high dog with a long fluffy tail stands with them as they watch their purple martin houses with binoculars from their back porch.
The Ohio man grows gourds for the martins in his garden and hollows them out with tools in his shop. He strings a slew of gourds on wires between what appear to be telephone poles. With a pulley system, he can raise and lower the wires to check nests and clean out parasites. These are, apparently, condos with cleaning service, available only to the most upscale birds.
At the end of breeding season, all martins fly to Brazil for the winter. Condos in Ohio for the summer, Brazil for the winter. Monogamous pairing. Equal partnering in the nest-building, egg-warming and hatchling-feeding activities. Nice life.
Sketches by a man with the unlikely name of Delmar Holdgrafer, cartoonist for the Purple Martin Society, suggest that landlords’ devotion to their tenants is a cultural phenomenon. One in particular reminds me of my ex-fighter pilot father. Peanuts’ Snoopy and a purple martin ride atop their respective houses manning machine guns. As they swoop toward an unsuspecting man whose hat has already been knocked off by a purple martin, Snoopy advises, “Get as close as you can before you climb up out of your dive.”
In the Korean War, my father was advised to hit “Targets of Opportunity”: bridges, trains, boats — anything that looked like it might carry people or objects related to the conquest of territory. “Anything that moved,” says my father. He remembers flying low over a fishing boat and seeing three men, afraid for their lives, jump overboard. “I could’ve killed those guys, but I didn’t,” he says. “They were just fishermen.”
A few years ago, I sat watching a video of pilots taking off from an aircraft carrier to go into combat in the Korean War. With me in his living room were my father and two of his friends who flew with him during the war. The men had, with their wives, driven their RVs to my parents’ farm, and the weekend had been full of laughter and good energy, but as the pilots on the video got into their cockpits — dressed in flight suits like the one my handsome young father wears in the black-and-white photograph next to his F9F Panther jet on the dresser in my bedroom — the room was filled with a heavy silence. It was as if these gray-haired men who now piloted RVs felt the same dread they had when they entered those planes on the deck of the Bonne Home Richard (the Bonny Dick, as it was called, tongue-in-cheek).
How many compatriots had they lost? What did they think as they looked at these men in the video, so like themselves, in their twenties, the crème de la crème in terms of coordination, intelligence and courage? Did they now also realize the extent of the destruction they had wrought, trying to stay alive, do their duty and serve their country by strafing airplanes piloted by “gooks,” who were, in truth, just excellent young men like themselves? Had any of them, unlike my father, flown low over boats full of innocent fishermen and blown them away? If so, had they been able to forgive themselves that great wrong done in the service of American idealism?
A LITERARY CRITIC compares the sound of Odysseus’ twanging bow-string to a swallow’s call. Odysseus made his bow sing upon return from his 10-year wandering after the Trojan War and found his house full of suitors for his faithful wife, Penelope, a woman who put off the men who wanted to take Odysseus’ place by telling them she would not marry until she finished weaving her father-in-law’s shroud. She wove by day and took her weaving apart by night, still hoping for her husband to return. The poet makes an appropriate comparison between the swallow and Odysseus: both are returnees — like the swallows, Odysseus finally comes back at his nesting grounds, ready to take aim in order to reclaim his territory.
PURPLE MARTINS ARE defenders of territory, too. My mother gets a charge out of the female’s insistence that the other “girls” stay out of her nest. Her favorite thing about the birds is their chatter. “You know they’re talking to each other,” she says. “It’s all consuming.” She tries to imitate the twittering, making a vibrating sound with her tongue and lips. She admires their monogamy, also: she and my father are going on their 55th year of marriage.
Predators and competition, of course, provide unwelcome drama in the lives of the martins. My father hasn’t forgotten saving the martins from a blacksnake after my grandmother saw something odd hanging from their birdhouse pole.
“She said, ‘It looks like a sock or piece of rope,’” my father recalls. “But it was a snake. The martins were going crazy.” He lowered the birdhouse so he could remove the snake. “I tried to give it to your mother, but she didn’t want it, so I let it go down by the river.”
After that, he put up a copper wire parallel to the post in the ground and connected it to the 4,000-volt electric fence. “I saw the snake go up again, but he got down in a hurry.”
The “Animal Planet” Ohio man uses a sentry system to warn the martins about hawks. Tree swallows, who nest nearby in boxes he provides, issue a high-pitched warning call that tips off the purple martins when hawks are in the area. My father also keeps a loaded gun in his bedroom and regularly patrols the borders of his property. No one – man or beast or fowl — gets to fish or hunt on his land without his permission.
Aristotle noted, “One swallow does not a summer make . . . ,” but summer is when swallows are most numerous, busily raising chicks in their apartment houses on my father’s Virginia farm. Males and females take turns caring for their young. They passionately defend their nests, fussing, with open beaks, in purple martin language and making expert aeronautical maneuvers overhead in their quest for insects.
Purple martins don’t show up much in central Washington state, where I live now. They like water, and the insects that gather near water, so they do appear west of the Cascades, where — unlike the eastern birds in their tenements — they prefer to nest singly in boxes over water. Yet, because of my parents’ passion, when I walk my dogs down Idaho Street toward the local irrigation canal, I notice the swarm of swallows — not purple martins but cliff swallows — described collectively as a “richness” of swallows.
Now, even when a hawk flies low over a distant cow pasture, drawing my attention to its swoop of feathers over high grass under a wide-open central Washington summer sky, I am more tuned in to the swallows than to this big predatory bird. A swallow flies right at me, a few feet overhead, tips its wings and makes a 90-degree turn, then flutters, turns, and goes the opposite direction. There’s another, and another, and several fly at once in a narrow airspace that must be full of bugs. They come at each other in what appears an impending collision, then tip their wings and miss by inches. Such a common bird. Tiny, dark, persistent in its pursuit of insects, flying in great “richnesses” from one continent to another. In this moment of communion with these birds, I am connected to their cousins, the purple martins, on my parents’ farm, and to my parents, especially my father the ex-fighter pilot, and seeing their flight I feel all the joys and sorrows of our trajectories.