June 7, 2022

The Tree Swallow’s Sacred Nest

Yesterday evening, after another wild thunderstorm, I look in the nesting box closest to my house and find 5 tiny white eggs nestled in feathers. The Tree Swallow Mama feathers her nest while she lays one egg each day. She’s the best interior decorator I’ve hosted, adding new colors—black, striped, and fluffy white—and rearranging feathers.

A few times each day she meets her mate for a conference on the nearby roost. As they lean into each other, I imagine them discussing if they should have more children.

Because I’m curious and nosy, I check on her this morning to see if she laid more eggs. Her nesting box is just down the driveway where it makes a turn toward the barn. The dogs and I walk within six feet of the box at least four times a day and neither she nor her mate seem bothered by us. We have a nice neighborly thing going.

This morning, I clap my hands when I’m 10 feet from her box, my boots crunching on the gravel driveway as I approach. I call out, just to make sure. “Hello, Swallow Mama. I’m here.” Then I knock on the door of her nesting box, pause, and knock again. She can easily fly out the round door at the front of the box, so she must not be home.

I unlatch the hook on the side door (added to the box to stop dexterous raccoon fingers with their hunger for bird eggs) and slowly lift the door. There are white feathers inside and no Mama. All is still. Ah, she’s definitely out.

I open the door wider and notice the iridescent teal feathers of her back in the center of her white feather bed—deep Cerulean blue with a greenish tinge, the color of a tropical ocean. Her feathers glisten in morning light, complementing the white feathers covering her.

Tree Swallow babies, 3 days later


“Oh no, Little Mama. I don’t want to disturb you. I don’t want to scare you.” Tree Swallow Mama stays still, hiding her eggs under her body, making sure they are safe in this threatening world. I ease one fluffy white feather to the side with a gentle finger and see her head and beak. Her black eyes watch me, but she doesn’t seem afraid. I hope she remembers we’ve met before.

“I would never hurt you,” I whisper with a prayer of hope for this vulnerable little family. Then, I close and latch her box and slowly back away.


I send my friend and writing teacher Ellen a photo of Tree Swallow Mama and her eggs. Ellen sends me a poem.

The Thing with Feathers

Ellen Hirning Schmidt

Beneath the murderous clouds

the tree swallow builds her nest

lays an egg each day by day

cupped in woven grass and moss

she tucks a silky feather

soft and curved around each egg

a nourishing prayer within


A note and bio from Ellen Hirning Schmidt:

“I am honored to be included in The Tree Swallow’s Sacred Nest. Elaine is a dear friend and inspiration to me. She has been a vital participant in my writing classes for many years.

I first submitted poems for publication at age 70.  In <4 years since, I received  the Helen Kay Chapbook Prize, a Pushcart nomination, and a Connecticut Poetry Society award.  My poems have appeared in Passager Poetry Contest Issue, Connecticut River Review, The Avocet, Poetry Quarterly, Caesura, Blood & Thunder, The Healing Muse, Bluff & Vine. I love teaching and supporting students’ work. I lead workshops in Ithaca, NY, Cornell Univ., Star Island, NH.  My chapbook Oh, say did you know is published by Evening Street Press and available at this link.


All 5 Tree Swallow eggs hatched. In the neighboring box, there were 3 Bluebird eggs instead of the usual 4 or 5 and only 1 hatched, so for the first time, I have a Bluebird only child. Her parents tend her carefully and she shares her nest with two unhatched blue eggs. The Tree Swallow Mama leaves her nest more often now to find food for the babes, and when she flies out, her mate flies in. All is well in their world.

What do you love most about nature this time of year? For other posts about spring on my land, see When the Bluebirds Fledged. You might also enjoy The Problem with Preferences about many birds and my opinions about where they should nest.


  1. June 13, 2022 at 6:57 pm



    Dear Elaine,
    It was a delight to go on this journey with you through the magical window you provided into your tree swallow’s sacred nest. We have several nests of tree swallows relatively close to our house, but not close enough to see anything other than through binoculars. However, the cliff swallows that return each year choose one of three nesting spots we’ve provided under the eaves of the porch on the north side of our house. It feels like we’ve developed a relationship with them similar to what you have with your Tree Swallow Mama. I love to listen to their chatter, and it’s always fun to imagine what they are discussing.
    Good luck with your recently submitted poem, and hurrah for all the oaks in your forest thriving! Everything changes.
    with love, anne

    1. June 15, 2022 at 12:14 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Anne. They’re about to fledge, probably today because the parents are ignoring them and they get hungry. I hope I catch them swooping together in circles, but they head for the woods quickly to take cover from hawks. I can open this nesting box easily because I pass it a few times a day when I go out for walks and it’s just beyond the driveway. I watch the bluebirds (she seems to be building a second next and he’s around guarding from trees or the barn roof) through Vic’s astronomy telescope, focused on the nesting box entryway. It gives me a great view of their ins and outs, but when she’s done building, I’ll go out and open the box to see if there are eggs. I don’t have cliff swallows here, but the robins find a way to build on drainage pipes under the barn roof overhang. I love seeing their little faces looking down on me. It’s a relief to see only a few caterpillar holes in the oak trees. Most trees are coming back strong, although a few old pines look beyond recovery. Those spongy (gypsy) mother caterpillars strip the pine needles and those don’t grow back like deciduous trees. I think a few pines will have to be cut, but we’re waiting to see if they revive. I hope your summer is gorgeous, peaceful, and green.

  2. June 13, 2022 at 3:58 pm

    Jean Raffa


    I enjoyed your lovely post so much. The pictures are amazing. I can’t wait to see what’s nesting around our NC place.

    We’re not there yet as I was exposed to Covid last week and have been in bed ever since with nasty symptoms. Somehow I keep testing negative, so I’ve decided I must have “Sympathic Covid” (some sort of copycat flu) for the three other members of my family who have tested positive for the real thing!

    Thank you for your always inspiring and beautiful nature posts. It’s so comforting and reassuring to be reminded of the miracles of new life emerging all around us every day now.

    1. June 15, 2022 at 11:58 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Jeanie. Those babies made a mess of their beautiful feather bed. I saw the parents this morning, but expect the nestlings to fledge any minute.

      I’m sorry you were exposed to Covid and feel sick–and that others in your family are sick, too. It must be confusing to feel sick and not test positive when others did. This wild disease doesn’t obey any rules. I hope you’re feeling better now and have a wonderful summer in the mountains. Nature is the best healer for me, but at the same time it teaches me every day that I can help in small ways, but I’m not in charge of the outcome. Sending love to you.

  3. June 13, 2022 at 11:54 am

    Susan scott


    Oh this is such a joy to read Elaine thank you. I find myself in step with you every moment of your writing. I feel the anticipation and the amazement of the artistry of the swallows – especially mama swallow. And the sense of deep satisfaction when the eggs are birthed and the cycle continues.
    Winter is here. Heavy rains and winds predicted for large parts of South Africa. I’ve been away from home for 2 weeks, returned Saturday afternoon and I’m keeping a keen eye on my recently planted garden. I have high hopes for the veg and herbs.

    1. June 13, 2022 at 3:31 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Susan, may your new garden thrive. I look forward to seeing photos of what’s been created. My flower gardens are at the end of spring magnificence, and the summer flowers are just beginning to blossom–but my gardens are small compared to the past. The vegetable garden looks hopeful and is providing salads and some cooked greens. I have 20 Monarch butterfly caterpillars in my back porch butterfly nursery and two Bluebird females building homes for a second clutch on other parts of my property. I’m grateful for all of it. Sending love and hope for safety in these challenging times.

  4. June 13, 2022 at 5:09 am

    Aladin Fazel


    Wow! That’s a fantastic observation. We have a small nest of tits here in our garden. Every year in spring, they make chicks, but I have no chance to watch this process. I can only hear the little ones screaming for food, and later I can see the parents teaching the young ones to fly. Thank you again for this beautiful story. Have a lovely week ahead.

    1. June 13, 2022 at 3:20 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      The Swallows are close enough to see out my windows, but they aren’t noisy. The Mama was so relaxed with me, but once both parents started feeding the 5 nestlings, it was all business. They work hard from dawn to dusk–and the kids made a flattened mess of all those beautiful feathers. They will all fly soon, but the parents are still feeding them, They’re graceful flyers and soar like angels.

  5. June 7, 2022 at 8:43 pm

    Marian Beaman


    Elaine, I enjoy how you anthropomorphize your relationship to the swallow and the nestlings. Even carry on conversations with them, which makes perfect sense to me. As for coloration, the opposite was true in our backyard: the birds brown and tiny in a brown nest, ensconced amidst white begonias, a touch of pink, and of course bright green foliage, a neat disguise.

    Thanks too for including Ellen’s lovely poem. It reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s lines: “Hope is a thing with feathers/that perches in the soul/and sings the song without words/and never stops at all.” To me, both poems speak of the capacity of living things (human and otherwise) to express hope. Thanks for the hope and joy that springs from this post!

    1. June 8, 2022 at 10:55 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Marion, I do anthropomorphize the birds in a playful way, but I also become familiar because I open their nesting boxes and watch the progress of creating a family. It brings me to a sense of a child’s relationship with nature. Tree Swallows only nest once, but I hope the Bluebirds down the fence with only one nestling in their first clutch will have a second family. Bluebirds usually have two clutches a season, so I’m waiting and watching and will clean out the nesting box as soon as the little one fledges. (I wonder if you talk with your little brown birds.)

      I love that Emily Dickinson poem and used it in my book. Ellen’s poem reminded me of it, too. The world has been challenging and sad in so many ways, but I feel a great sense of hope when the flowers bloom and birds fly. And this week, the Monarchs began laying eggs in the fields. Hope is a thing that floats on the wind and lives on wildflower nectar. Blessings to you and the beautiful birds of Florida.

  6. June 7, 2022 at 11:14 am

    Deborah Gregory


    Just wonderful! Thank you dear Elaine for sharing more of your feathered tales and lovely photos. Yes, what a beautiful, silky nest Mama and Papa Swallow have created this year. I love that photo of the pair of them huddled, “leaning into love” on the post and when you whispered, “I would never hurt you.” Yep, that’s a very nice neighbouring thing going on! And thank you for sharing Ellen’s lovely little poem which has nestled itself in this poet’s heart.

    June is such a glorious month that gets me outdoors often! So whether walking, cycling or gardening (from my reading chair!) summer leaves me so happy and relaxed. Today I walked along the shoreline for about three miles, not far but oh so rewarding as the waves swept in and out, while a gang of noisy gulls screamed overhead, fighting over a tiny crab which they kept dropping, sadly, I wasn’t quick enough. Still, i guess they’re hungry mothers too. Love and light, Deborah.

    1. June 8, 2022 at 10:41 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Deborah, Papa doesn’t lift a feather or collect and arrange them. She’s the artist. He guards while she builds. On the other hand, he does equal duty in feeding the kids and keeping the nest clean and often brings a squirmy caterpillar to his mate while she’s incubating eggs. He’s a good Papa, but doesn’t have an eye for feathers. My writing friend and teacher Ellen encourages me to write poetry, but the only one I’ve put on my blog is “The Color of Forgiveness” about a Blue Morpho dream. That may be changing as I just submitted another poem–as you know. Your connection to the ocean sounds beautiful and healing. I’m glad you can walk along that shoreline. When we get close to Nature, we face that someone, the crab in this case, is always being eaten or having their babies eaten or maimed. It’s a hard world for all living beings.

      I forgot to tell you that this year we have few caterpillars in the forest and all the oak varieties look terrific. They’ll likely have a banner year for color and acorns. Last year was traumatic as I watched the caterpillars eat every leaf and leave the canopy winter naked in the middle of the summer. Some of the evergreen trees will never recover from the hoards of caterpillars and a few died, but the deciduous trees are strong this season. Sending Nature’s resilient beauty across the ocean and over the oaks.

      1. June 8, 2022 at 11:36 am

        Deborah Gregory


        Thank you for sharing your Mama and Papa Tree Swallow nesting observations, I’ve learnt something new today. Me, I love the form of poetry best, love its condensed story-telling, sometimes done so exquisitely in a few words … which is often how a poem begins for me, with a few scribbled words on a page. Good luck with your own poetry submission, as you know I loved the poem! Yes, those poor little crabs being eaten by the gulls, a hard world for all! Still, great news about your forest’s oaks, I’m relieved for you! Love and light, Deborah.

        1. June 8, 2022 at 3:27 pm

          Elaine Mansfield


          With poetry, every word must be just right. That’s a little intimidating, but it’s worth an experiment. Thanks for encouraging words.

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