• John Hogeland

This is For the Birds


That's me, the wood butcher, hard at work.

I started building the bird houses in mid January, with plans to finish as many as I could before March 1st, the date we would put them up.


I got off to a pretty good start making seven in one evening. I was pretty sure they wouldn't be immediately condemned by the local Bird Housing Authority and even produced the makings of a few more over the next day or two.


I was well on my way to being a bird house slum lord. Then, I stalled out. Beth was getting ready to head west for ski season and I was trying to get my calves sorted and sold. She left and it got cold, really cold and Jacob was here and....blah, blah, blah.


The houses are for tree swallows, a species that is in decline around North America. According to people who are nosey enough to follow a pair of hard working tree swallows around with a clipboard for long periods of time, the loving parents will catch about six thousand flies on the wing per day for their brood of 5-7 chicks. This admirable ability motivated me toward my own goal to put up as many tree swallow houses as I could before the cattle's fly season starts for the year. I'm sure you can see the connection here if you have been reading my and Beth's posts over the years or if you know anything about cows - they have flies.


The magnificent seven, our first bird houses.

My thinking is to fill a gap that past farmers have opened by removing the habitat that supported these amiable little birds of (insect) prey by creating a local housing glut in a place where they can take advantage of the local food glut. If I can - over the next few seasons - produce enough houses to support a large community of swallows, I can heal a small part of the ecological rift that exists and my cows and I can reap the benefits of their benefits, if you get my drift.


As Beth returned from her ski trip, I had finally gotten rolling again and cut the pieces for another 14 houses.

Bird houses beginning to stack up.

We put the houses together and painted the tops and exposed ends of the boards to try to make the houses last for some years yet. All of the houses are built from old barn wood and trim scraps from our own home, so I'm hoping the swallows will recognize that my shoddy workmanship, poor paint job, and the salvaged materials actually make the houses very bohemian and trendy.


Our first set are all barn wood on white, while I am planning for the next set to be barn wood and salty dog blue, the color of our own farm house. After that we have two shades of red and another of blue that should color the neighborhood up nicely in an American flag red, white and blue theme, adding to the eclectic nature of our farm.


In the end, the color palette for the houses will only be limited by what is available at the surplus building supply shop or paint mixing mistakes at the paint stores in Des Moines. I imagine rainbows will ensue.


After Beth and I finished the assembly and painting, it was off to the pasture for home

It takes a farmer to raise a village.

placement. While tree swallows are generally social, they don't like their houses to be too close together. If they feel crowded, they will spend all their time chasing each other and arguing over border disputes when they should be off feeding the wee ones flies. Luckily, the fence I built two years ago has it's posts set nearly 35 feet apart, giving us ideal spacing for our little swallow shtetl. It is at the edge of the pasture, near our several silt ponds and I am betting that these homes with a lake view and a big back yard will be a hit. With any luck, when the cows move into the neighborhood, the swallows will literally flock to the mobile smorgasbord and take full advantage of the available flies.


The posts in the section of fence where we wanted to place to bird houses are unusually tall, a fortunate mistake that I made a couple of years ago. I was cutting hedge posts for a guy who wanted the posts to be 10 feet long, 2-3 feet longer than usual.

Beth, photo bombing my beautiful bird house shot.

My misfortune then was that he had not committed to buy all the posts I had cut. This left me with a fair amount of posts that are quite a bit taller than I would usually make them. But, tree swallow houses need to be 5-6 feet off the ground, so even with 4 feet of post in the ground, these posts were tall enough to meet the requirements. The universe sometimes brings together unwanted supply and unforeseen demand.


So now it is warming and greening, and birds that had gone south are returning. Ten days ago we saw the first red wing black birds, (the true harbingers of spring here in Iowa). Next arrived the robins and the cat birds and just yesterday I saw something sitting on top of one of our bird houses that looked remarkably like a tree swallow. Fingers crossed.




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