Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Castle Doctrine, and How Duct Tape Saved Lives

I'm deviating from my usual subject matter today, as the return of our barn swallows has inspired me to talk about an event that occurred 5 years ago.

Texas has a "castle doctrine", which essentially means that if someone breaks into your house, you have the right to defend your house with deadly force. So if someone were to break into my house in the middle of the night, I can empty my 38 into them, and the police would simply take the body away, shake my hand, and say good-bye.

The birds of Texas have a similar doctrine. Heck, I think the Texas mockingbird inspired the castle doctrine. Anyone who has gotten too close to a mockingbird nest has experienced firsthand how territorial they are. At our house, we usually have 2-3 resident mockingbirds--one on the South side, one on the North side, and one on the West side. The one on the South side has prime real estate, as they get the best bushes and trees on the property, as well as my vegetable garden. Shortly after we moved in, I named that mockingbird "Mindy", and will typically greet it as it sings in the morning, or whenever we go out into the yard (whether or not the mockingbird is still the original "Mindy", I can't say, but I just keep using the name anyway). The mockingbirds around our house have generally figured out that my husband and I aren't a threat to them, so we have rarely tangled with them--the exception being when Mindy got upset about me taking tomatoes off of my tomato plants. She had been enjoying those lovely fruits as soon as they turned red, despite all my efforts to protect them, and she is one of the reasons I don't bother growing tomatoes any more.

In the end, I'm a bird lover, and even if I wanted to, there is nothing I could do about the resident mockingbird tyrants. As the state bird of Texas, they are protected by law (yep, the mockingbird castle doctrine). I also remember the line from Harper Lee's book "It's a sin to kill a mockingbird", which I think would give any good Christian pause.

Barn swallows are not as aggressive as mockingbirds, but they have a similar castle doctrine and also tend to gravitate towards human habitations. When they move into their home for the Spring and Summer, they will protect it. However, while mockingbirds will actually make contact with your head to protect their nest, barn swallows tend to make low flybys instead, if their scolding doesn't deter you first. They won't do damage, but it's an effective method to get someone to go away.

Apparently the area outside our front door is prime real estate for barn swallows. Every spring--usually between March 15 and April 1--they come back to North Texas and start house shopping. The first year we were here, they built a new nest in our entry area, as the previous owners of our house had obviously knocked down other nests that had been built there in the past. After a good rain storm, the nests get built very quickly because the swallows have plenty of mud to use in their construction. The nice part is that they built the nest so that we can see it from inside our house, and we can watch the little families grow each year.

In 2008, the swallows were re-using a nest built the previous year. They had done a little bit of reinforcement, moved in, and promptly laid 5 eggs (the maximum brood for them). The eggs hatched, and Mama and Papa spent their days feeding their kids.

One Saturday morning in May, as I was getting ready to go to breakfast, my husband (who is always ready first) rushed into our bathroom looking very distressed. The nest had fallen down, and the baby barn swallows in the ruins on our front porch.

After some debate about the best course of action, we got a small box (about the size of their nest) and some grass-like material that I had on hand for filling gift baskets. Two of the babies hadn't survived the fall, but we gathered up the other three and put them into the box. We then got out our tallest ladder, set it up on the porch, and put the box on top of it. The entire time, Mama and Papa were very confused and upset, doing their typical flybys around our heads. After we put the box up, they still didn't know what to do, and were flying around the area trying to figure it all out. We decided to leave the box as it was and go to breakfast, and hopefully Mama and Papa would figure it out and start feeding their babies again.

When we returned from breakfast, the situation hadn't changed. So I went online to get some tips or find a local wildlife rescue who could help. I found the DFW Wildlife Coalition, which had a volunteer hotline. I called and spoke to a very nice lady who said we were on the right track, and she gave me a suggestion: try duct-taping the box into the original nest site.

I can honestly say that duct tape saved lives that day. My husband (who deserves combat pay for his role because he was under constant assault from the very unhappy Mama and Papa) used a prodigious amount of duct tape to secure our box to the side of the house. He also improved the setup by cutting off all but one of the box flaps, so that the remaining one was taped to the wall, and there was a nice edge around the box for the birds to perch on. Within a few hours, Mama and Papa were feeding the nestlings again.


Unfortunately, one of the rescued nestlings didn't survive the night, but the other two did and grew up into adults. After the babies had left the nest, my husband and I debated whether to take it down. Mama and Papa had other ideas, though. They liked the setup so much they laid another set of eggs in the box, and raised four more babies in it.

We took down the box later that Fall, and the following year, a new nest was constructed which is still in use to this day--we have another Mama and Papa Barn Swallow guarding eggs in it now.

I sent the DFW Wildlife Coalition a nice "Thank You" e-mail with the success story and pictures, as well as a donation. They were very appreciative of both, and since they were about to have a "volunteer appreciation day", they wanted to share my story with everyone there because they don't often hear about the ultimate outcomes of their calls. I also gave them my permission to use the story in their newsletter, as I wanted everyone to know how lives could be saved with some compassion, a little ingenuity, and plenty of duct tape.

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