Cliff Swallows and Tobacco

Please regard the images in this post as copyrighted and ask permission to use them in any way. Thanks. DEClapp

Before we get started I want to refer anyone who develops an interest in this topic to two very entertaining and educational articles: one in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, a county newspaper from central Massachusetts, written and illustrated by Kevin Gutting and published 9/15/18 and another in the Greenfield Recorder by Dominic Poli from 9/15/2019. These both speak to tobacco farming in the Connecticut valley. These articles bring you back to the early 1800’s and on into the 2020’s and today’s crop.

Well, here’s the story. Fran and I are avoiding people, much like everyone else in our state. We miss the kids (they are only 9 and 11) and are living in the attic we think. But like everyone else, in order to keep the peace and good health until we can develop cultural immunities and vaccines we are sheltering. The good news is that we both like empty and lonely countryside and each others company. So we wander the beaches before most people have brushed their teeth and our road trips are not to CostCo or the supermarket; they are to parks, beaches, and locations where nature abounds.

One great adventure that anyone can do (alone and away from people if need be – and at the moment there is that need) is to start a bird list around the yard or neighborhood. I warn you early on that it can be as addictive as any other stimulant and has the potential to be surprisingly expensive. But just to ally those fears your binoculars don’t have to cost $3000 nor does your spotting scope. You can get away with an aluminum tripod; though the carbon fiber tripods are alluring. If you want to take photos as you note your neighborhood birds there are now dozens of digital cameras that have a 50x (or more) reach. Enough so that your heartbeat makes the images blurry. Or you can just walk around and try to identify what you see and what you hear. There will be clues everywhere.

You can start this hobby simply with a pencil and a sheet of paper. Or bird feeders. Or a walk around the block. Or better yet by Googling eBird and opening a free eBird account. eBird will serve as your bird book, list keeper, geographical servant, and provide information on hot spots and migration and it will even rank you among the other area birders – if you want. But that is where the competitive spirit lurks. The Lovely Frances was a quiet research taxonomist (aquatic insect larvae) and a backroom problem solver in the banking world until she found that eBird compared her to other birders in the area. Now she checks each morning to see if she is in the county’s top 10 or if we (yes we) need to bolt out the door and add a species or two to her year list so she can regain he rightful spot near the head of the list. eBird can speak in short sentences or in volumes. It is a wonder of our modern age.

One last topic is stimulated by the word list. You see there are many lists; yard lists, day lists, month lists, year lists, outing lists, Big Day lists, and so on. If Tom, Dick, and Harry see a Blackburnian Warbler then dammit I want to see one as well. Where did they see it? eBird will not only tell you where they saw it but it will show you their list and link you to a map on how to get there from anywhere so you can put it on your list. But, the really great thing about eBird isn’t what it does for you and me though that is amazing and much appreciated; the thing about eBird is that the datum we submit is blended and collated with other data points and a picture of our world is created based on bird movements and bird sightings. In a time of the dismantling of environmental regulations and protection we need a baseline of real data – of trends and changes – so we can defend environmental causes.

So let us move on to the tobacco and birds – the birds are going to be Cliff Swallows, a species found from Alaska to Massachusetts in breeding season and one that now nests on buildings more than cliffs. In New England they converge rather nicely along the Connecticut River Valley.

PS – just kidding about the kids in the attic

The Connecticut River Valley drops almost due south from northern New Hampshire (the Canadian border actually) to Long Island Sound. The 406 mile long waterway is fed by a myriad of smaller rivers and streams and eventually carries a good deal of New England’s surface water and collected sediment into Long Island Sound.
Much of New England was rock. The rock was ground by glaciers. The gravels and sands that were thus created are carried in our rivers to the sea. This image shows the siltation from the Connecticut River as it enters Long Island Sound.
The river passes southward through Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden counties in Massachusetts and into Hartford and then into Middlesex counties in Connecticut. The valley of the Connecticut is the place where in the mid-1800s a tobacco farming economy developed. It is still there; small acreages perhaps, family operations for the most part, but still part of this swath of flood plain.
These counties are hazy hot and humid in the summer. During the Civil War the southern states were unable, and perhaps unwilling, to grow, harvest and sell tobacco to the northern states.. Something had to be done – tobacco was essential! It turns out that the three Massachusetts counties and the one Connecticut (with a bit of southern Vermont as well) were ideal for tobacco growing. It has been grown in that area for 160-plus years now. Hampshire County shown above has tobacco farms on both sides of the Connecticut River. From Greenfield on down through Hadley, South Hadley, and Hatfield you can still see acres and acres of broadleaf tobacco being grown.
When I was a kid we would drive for hours to visit my mother’s mother and father. In those days the roads were smaller and much less direct. On many occasions we passed through the Connecticut valley of either Massachusetts or Connecticut. There were a scattering of long, rectangular, unpainted barns that I was told were tobacco barns. I am not sure if any of us had any understanding of the crop, the reason it was in Massachusetts, or the economy it supported. I wondered whether the tobacco in my father’s Chesterfields came from these patches of stubby plants.
For many years “shade tobacco” was the main crop in Massachusetts. It was tobacco grown under white cheesecloth coverings. It grew to eight feet in height and was used as a wrapper for the best cigars. Nowadays the main crop is a broadleaf tobacco but one grown in the sun. The plants grow to 3 feet tall or so. In harvesting they are chopped at the ground and the whole plant is slipped onto a wooden slat or pole and that pole is hung in the rafters of the tobacco barns. It dries for a couple months (or so). The leaves (as big as rhubarb leaves) are then stripped from the main stem and taken to market. They are still used in cigars as it always has been. Many farmers in the 1940s grew a tobacco called Havana which was a smaller plant and often grown from seed. The tobacco plant is sensitive to air pollution and does not do well in wet seasons. As a matter of fact many of the Connecticut Valley farmers dropped out of the business back in 1954 after we had two very wet hurricanes pretty much ruin that years crop.

Anyway what we were doing had little to do with tobacco or even the Connecticut River Valley. We were looking for a rapidly declining species of bird in a group that is rapidly declining overall. Our burgeoning world population (of humans) needs food; lots and lots of food every day. The best way to grow food is in huge mono crop fields. These fields are ripe for plunder by invasive fungi and insects. In order to develop a profitable crop chemical controls are used to control weeds and plant predators. This has resulted in more efficient poisons. Killing insects is sometimes nothing more than killing insects: aphids, ants, dragonflies, and butterflies can all be impacted by the same insecticides. Some insecticides are quite specific and the use of pheromones is increasing – but poisons, and now nicotine-based poisons, are having a damaging impact on insects overall. I remember the days when cleaning a car windshield was to remove bugs collected as we drive along.

The insect eating birds are suffering population losses. Their food sources are being impacted and the long term impact is not understood at all. These insects feed multitudes and pollinate a great many plants. We will miss them some day – I think we can count on that.

One of the birds that we see occasionally in Massachusetts, and mostly in the western part of the state is the Cliff Swallow (CLSW). Swallows as a group are insect eaters although some switch to seeds and berries in the fall. The Cliff Swallow is a builder of mud nests and is not a common bird in Massachusetts.
In flight, as you often see them, the CLSWs have a rusty colored rump and a very light forehead. When overhead you can notice the squared-off tail. It is most likely that you will be looking for CLSW rather than just bumping in to one. They nest under roof overhands and are pretty dependable in the same location year after year. In a few places, especially the rock faces of our western mountains, they may nest on the rocks as long as the site is umbrellaed by the rock above.
The view of the nests is not always easy. This is how they look from the ground. There are no where near enough birds to make use of all the barns in the area. The birds in this image have been offered pottery nest frames on which to build. In many cases they will build their own mud nests instead. On this barn you can see the free housing but you can’t see the ten bird-built nests tucked up under the eave.
These man-made nests are built onto pottery bases to both entice and aid the birds. The use of these nests may help increase the local population. I once had a colony in the eastern part of the state that I watched for several years. One afternoon as I was watching the swallows a small group of House Sparrows (HOSP) arrived and threw all the eggs and just-hatched babies out of the nests to the ground below. There were 23 nests in that colony that year and about 100 eggs and young were killed in just a few minutes. In many cases the HOSPs will take over a nest and use it for their own eggs, but, sadly, they will occasionally take over a complete nesting colony. (The image is grainy because it was raining.)
With a tobacco barn in the background, we look for (and at) the Cliff Swallow colony. This is a bird that has a synchronous nesting cycle; pretty much all the eggs in the colony are laid at the same time, hatch at the same time, and fledge at the same time. This is what allowed those previously mentioned House Sparrows to impart such complete devastation on that colony. In order to get this synchrony working many birds will lay their eggs in nests that are not completed. One of the other things that helps attract and keep Cliff Swallows is to have a muddy area nearby. The nests are made of mud collected at nearby puddles and formed into a hardened earth hollow ball with a spout that is used as an entrance and exit. The second image above shows the man-made nests and they do not really have the spouts extended.

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