Surrounded by Swirling Swallows:
The Animal Encounter of a Lifetime



Gavin Greenfield



 
© Copyright 2022 by Gavin Greenfield




Photo by Julian on Unsplash
Photo by Julian on Unsplash

The era of discovery is mostly over in the field of zoology. Long gone are the days when intrepid adventurers could discover large and colorful animals every day simply by walking through distant and remote lands previously unexplored by Western scientists. These days, discovering a new animal species larger than a quarter is mostly accomplished in a lab by running samples of DNA through complex algorithms consisting of long expanses of code. The hard work is done in front of a computer screen from the comfort of an air conditioned office instead of a place actually inhabited by the animal being discovered.

The situation is hardly different when it comes to animal behavior. Any person with a Roku can observe more species in a single day than the most important biologists of all time were able to in a lifetime of exploration. Modern scientists have conducted and recorded endless hours of behavioral observations, and those wishing to discover something new can hardly do more than pick around the margins with the aid of technological gadgets and advanced statistical models.

For these reasons, I continue to have great appreciation for a truly unique animal encounter I experienced over 15 years ago. Iíve come face to face with dozens of bears, moose, and elk, Iíve held large birds of prey, and Iíve even had the pleasure of spotting multiple mountain lions (from the safety of a pickup truck thankfully), but the wildlife encounter that sticks with me the most involves the humble bank swallow, a mostly brown bird measuring five inches long and sporting a bill scarcely larger than a pen point.

It would be easy to think that there isnít much to be gained in observing the smallest of the North American swallows, a bird which lacks the colorful plumage or renown of some of its more familiar cousins, but I consider myself fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time for a few brief moments which allowed me to witness a behavior never recorded by other people and which profoundly deepened my appreciation for the natural world.

That place was an undistinguished spot along the banks of the Powder River in northeast Wyoming, and the time was in early May when the breeding season for bank swallows was approaching its peak. This location is one that will never be visited by tourists óitís located on private land, but I donít expect many people would go out of their way to see it even if it were open to the public. It isnít substantially different from any other place among the expanses of flat agricultural land that dominate this part of the world. The landscape is green and open, containing few trees and shrubs which are mostly clustered near the Powder, which as a slow and shallow river that one can easily wade across, isnít especially noteworthy.

I was there because I was working as a wildlife biology field technician for the spring and summer. It was my first season doing this type of work; just a few weeks before, Iíd left a tedious office job just outside of Washington, DC and made the cross-country journey to Wyoming to embark on not just a new career, but a new path in life, one which I hoped would involve being outside in remote areas and observing wildlife as much as possible. The work was nothing special Ė I just had to navigate my way to some hidden corner of Wyoming before sunrise every morning, walk to some pre-determined points, and write down every bird I could hear and see during a ten-minute observation period. But it suited me just fine. I was happy to be out in nature and far from the stress and sensory overload of the big city, I rarely encountered other people, and I had most of the day to read, relax, listen to music, or just walk around.

Nothing out of the ordinary happened during my workday before I encountered the bank swallows. I made it out to my survey sites without any trouble and carried out the work. It was a warm and sunny morning, and I was walking back to where I had parked my truck in good spirits, probably thinking about nothing more significant than what I was going to eat for lunch.

I was walking along the river, or more accurately a few feet above the river, as I often did on the way back to the truck as rivers serve as easily navigable landscape features. Many rivers form what are called cut banks Ė think of a cut bank like a mini-canyon: after erosion occurs, little walls form on either side of the river. The cut banks in this area were no more than ten feet high, but this is high enough to create ideal nesting habitat for bank swallows.

I had already gained some familiarity with bank swallows because of the distinctive nests they dig in the walls of cut banks. Bank swallow colonies can be quite extensive, consisting of thousands of nests. A big colony looks like a series of mailboxes you might see in an office or behind the desk of an old hotel Ė a grid of closely packed rectangles forming several rows and columns. I always enjoyed seeing these nests and watching the swallows fly in and out of them, on the one hand because itís simply cool to watch, but also because it made it very easy for me to identify the birds. As a novice bird identifier, I always appreciated anything that made my task easier. Although I had observed plenty of bank swallows in the short time Iíd been in Wyoming, I had never interacted with them before, or I should say they had never interacted with me.

I was walking far enough away from the edge of the cliff that I couldnít see the river below. Some movement caught my eye and I saw a bank swallow emerge from below the horizon formed by the top of the cut bank. It was followed by another, and then another, and I stopped abruptly as the swallows continued to emerge. One by one, a stream of bank swallows appeared. The best analogy I can think of is when the individual players on a football team run out of the tunnel and advance onto the field, fanning out in an ever-widening formation. The analogy is also apt for the sheer number of birds that joined the emerging mass. By the time it ended, there were somewhere between 75 and 100 of these fast moving little birds, and it didnít take me long to realize that the reason for their emergence and aggregation was me! I must have been treading right on top of one of their colonies, and with the breeding season picking up steam, the reverberations from my strides must have roused them and represented a threat to their newly formed nests.

They closed in on me and began circling around me scarcely more than armís reach away in a tight clockwise formation, chattering all the while. Before I knew it, I was enveloped in an undulating, loud, and rapidly moving vortex in which the individuality of the birds seemed to melt and reform into a synchronous unit moving in formation under the control of a single mind or perhaps executing a well-practiced maneuver with military precision. As I stood still, equally puzzled and in awe of the situation unfolding before me, I wondered to myself ďshould I be afraid?Ē An individual swallow is tiny, but a hundred swallows might equate to something much more menacing. Indeed, from time to time one of the birds would break out of the swirling mass and barrel in towards me while making a soft ďchipĒ noise before quickly reversing course and rejoining the circling squadron. Each approach brought the bird a couple feet from my face, but after several of these encounters, it became clear that I wasnít in any danger.

Now I was able to enjoy it for what it was, a beautiful phenomenon that has never been documented, a rare behavior that one could only learn about by being fortunate enough to walk in a certain place during a certain time of the year. Surrounded by the swift and acrobatic movements of the birds, bright sun, blue sky, and green grass and trees, part of me was tempted to act like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, to lift my face to the sky, spread my arms, and rotate in unison with the circling swallows. Even with no one there to see me, I couldnít give myself over to such obvious sentimentality, so after observing the spectacle for a little bit longer I decided to restart my return to the truck. I was probably hungry.

As I fearlessly walked into the mass of the swirling cloud of swallows, the birds parted before me like a throng of courtiers giving way to their king. Once the formation had broken, it was as though a switch had been flipped. No longer operating as a single unit with a collective mind, the birds scattered randomly in all directions before disappearing under the shelf of the cut bank and presumably returning to whatever labor they had been performing before my arrival. In an instant, the surreal quality of the dream-like event vaporized and I was returned to the mundane reality I had occupied just a few minutes before. Aside from the indelible impression on my memory and the impact on my emotional state, there was no trace of what had just occurred. It was as if the birds invited me to partake in a mysterious and secretive ritual at the conclusion of which we tacitly agreed to continue on with our lives, with the rest of the worldís sentient beings none the wiser.

Although Iíve written scientific papers about birds, thereís no room in modern science journals for an article about the phenomenon I observed ó Iím about 100 years too late for that type of thing to be of any interest to the biological community. I wonít receive any accolades for my discovery and it wonít advance my legacy or be counted as a major contribution to the field. Instead, all Iíll have is the memory of an amazing and fleeting experience which lasted no more than a couple of minutes. An experience during which a small and not especially valued species briefly let me into its world and allowed me to experience something special and totally out of the ordinary, even for someone who worked closely with wildlife for over a decade.

To this day, Iím grateful that the humble bank swallow allowed me a glimpse into its secret and unobserved life. My encounter was exactly the type of event I hoped to experience when I chose to dramatically alter the course of my life by trading a career as a low level functionary in county government for the life of a nomadic seasonal biology technician. It helped to solidify my conviction that Iíd made the right decision, that there was meaning to be found among the sights and sounds of nature, far from the tubular fluorescent lights and keyboard tapping observed in a typical office setting. I didnít get to name a species after myself or achieve any glory as a scientist, but Iíd like to think I was able to feel the same thing that the illustrious early biologists did ó a sense of discovery and awe independent of any acclaim from the scientific establishment, but enjoyed strictly between animal and man and all the more pure for its exclusion of any other considerations.

This experience helped to propel my course as a biologist forward, and although I was fortunate to experience many intense moments of communion with wild animals, I never quite recaptured the powerful feeling which resulted from my short encounter with the bank swallows just a few weeks after I started down this path. This memory is one that I recall vividly and deeply treasure, and one which gives me hope that even though our catalog of animals and animal behavior is nearly complete, anyone can have a unique and deeply moving encounter with wildlife as long as they are open to receive it and spend enough time seeking out quiet places in nature so that they might be in the right place at the right time.


The author grew up in Potomac, MD and has a Bachelorís Degree in Environmental Sciences from Northwestern University and a PhD in Biology from The Ohio State University. He worked as a seasonal field biologist for several years throughout the United States, working mostly with birds. He currently resides with his girlfriend and cat in Columbus, OH and is a professor of Human and Anatomy and Physiology at a small college. He enjoys hiking, camping, and backpacking and anything that involves being outdoors and observing wildlife. He is the author of multiple scientific papers but has never been published as a creative writer.




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