Swallows (tsubame,燕) No Longer Get the Hospitality They Had Long Been Accustomed to in Japan
By Avi Landau
Though we are now entering the height of their breeding season, it is not until July that they really stand out. It is then that they can be seen darting about, like little fighter planes, over the ripening paddy fields, gracefully grabbing up mosquitoes and other harmful bugs. They are working at a frenzied pace, as their young ( their second brood of the season), numbering as many as seven, are getting bigger and bigger, and need more and more nourishment before they finally leave the nest and find food on their own. And while they have a professional baseball team named after them and a shinkansen train as well, SWALLOWS, or TSUBAME (燕), are not getting the respect they have grown used to.
These famed harbingers of spring arrive in the Kanto area in April, having flown great distances from southern China,and as far as Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. They arrive just in time to make use of the freshly tilled mud in the paddy fields to make their distinctive nests. In Japan, swallows have come to live closely with humans, mostly nesting in settled areas, including large cities. They make their mud and grass nests under the eaves of houses and shops and usually return to the SAME HOUSE every year, OFTEN ON THE SAME DATE! The annual return of the tsubame has been considered a happy occasion by their host families. Having your house or shop selected by the swallows for nesting has traditionally been considered highly auspicious and you can still find home-owners and shop-keepers putting out boxes or newspapers to catch the droppings and maybe even putting up a screen or wind-shield for additional protection. In late May, while the swallows are raising their first brood it is most usual to notice these DROPPING BOADS before noticing the birds themselves (if you see a sheet of newspaper or cardboard covered with white droppings just look up and you will probably see the nest!). You can probably be sure that there will also be hungry crows , cats or snakes nearby (that is why the nests are tucked ingeniously into unreachable areas under the eaves).
In older villages and towns and in the older sections of large cities, one nest or more under the eaves of an old building, with chicks poking their beaks out expectantly waiting for their mothers return, as their father stands guard close by, is an endearing image of a Japan quickly disappearing.
Year by year, the swallows are finding themselves less and less welcome. The traditional belief in the luck that the swallows bring is being gradually replaced by the the modern worship of THE STERILE and clean, and by this I mean an intense dislike of bugs, large trees, animals or anything else that smacks of DIRTY.
These days, proud owners of little, plastic, half-million dollar houses, are most likely to have swallows nests quickly removed or more cruelly just closed off, separating parents from young.
Still, the old values come to the rescue sometimes. Here is a story about the swallows at Misao Ito’s house in Kukizaki. Misao lives in a grand old neighborhood, just across the street from Mrs. Noguchi’s (of the mask fame) thatched-roof manor house. Her family decided to knock down their old house and build a modern style home, one which did not seem appropriate for swallows nests.
When her family was looking into ways of removing the nest which had been constructed by their front door, the neighbors came to intervene. Don’t destroy the nest, they warned. If you do that youre house might burn down!
They told Misao’s family that having the nest would bring good fortune to the family and that if the number of chicks hatched was an odd number, they should celebrate by eating sekihan (red rice for festive occasions). The Ito`s followed their neighbors advice and in the end all parties were satisfied. The birds raised their young,the kids enjoyed watching the dramatic, private nature show on their front porch and the neighbors are at ease, because tradition was not broken. And most of all their is the anticipation of the same birds return next spring and the spring after that.
With more and more swallows returning from overseas to find themselves unwelcome, I think it’s time to re-instill in everyone this old excitement which the swallow used to bring.
Besides their miraculous annual return, they are beautiful, graceful, hardworking parents, who eliminate plenty of mosquitoes (without poisons)!
Why shouldn’t we welcome them!
You can find many nests with chicks in them under the walkway of the Art and Physical Education Department of Tsukuba University. Parent birds can be seen for the next few days scrambling for as many insects as they can catch. Watching them over the deep green, young rice plants is the best way to view them in Tsukuba.
Look at some ways that Japanese people help the nesting birds (by making platforms for nesting) and protect their homes from swallow poop:
I have also written a TsukuBlog post on my trying to nurse an injured swallow: