This One’s for the Birds

… specifically, for the Swallows—Indicators of Ecological [un]Health
and the Need for Men’s Work:

(draft) 2015, Davd

On the second full day of calendar Spring, with snow falling and 4-6 inches of the stuff predicted before the storm has moved on, i wistfully remembered the small and beautiful birds that mark the approach of summer. Swallows are a very indicative family of birds, and today they, like the forests and cultivated lands whose health they indicate, are victims of industrial style “economic development”. I’ve been mentioning birds generally and swallows specifically, as indicative of ecological health, for a couple years now, to visitors who come to my prayer garden and people i meet in context of ecology and economics—and i think it’s time to begin saying it more publicly.

Everyone who i’ve talked with about swallows, enjoys watching them fly. They are perhaps the most graceful animals in the air—gulls will stand comparison, and geese on migration; while most other birds look clumsy compared to them—and the swallows dance and dart for hours each day, unlike robins and wrens and chickadees who fly perhaps a few minutes total in a day. Their graceful swift flight is their livelihood: They eat flying insects.

The best thing swallows do for us, even better than beautify our skies, is eat insects. Flying insects are nearly all of their food. Persuade a few pairs of swallows to nest in your yard, and you’ll enjoy being outdoors relatively free from mosquito and blackfly bites.

I have been putting up a few birdhouses of the size and design my friends say are suitable for swallows, each year, and each spring a very few swallows come and “check them out”, but so far, none have nested in them. The neighbours tell me that’s because the open area around my house is fairly small, and the hirondelles, as they call them in Acadian French, prefer larger openings. The houses i put up are OK, they say, but the hirondelles are so few, that none choose my mere two acres of opening.

Back in the Old Days, they say, there were ten to a hundred times as many hirondelles as there are this decade. Back then, two, three, surely at least one, of my birdhouses would be occupied—and those lovely aerial acrobats would be making the place much more pleasant to be outdoors during blackfly and mosquito season. There’s plenty of food, in the form of flying insects, for at least five times the number of swallows that we see around here in the summer.

I asked if there were fewer blackflies and mosquitoes back then. Sad, sort of rueful smiles. They, like most rural people, know some ecology in the form of folklore.

So why are the hirondelles so few? Their answer was good folk ecology—it’s the poison they spray on the clearcuts, and on young stands of balsam fir when the budworms have a population surge (Bailey and Benneworth, 1978, warned about the ill effects of that), and on the blueberry fields for which “the Crown” has granted hundreds and hundreds of acres, to an American-owned Nova Scotia enterprise. The poison doesn’t always kill the insects immediately, and it gets into insect species that aren’t its target; and so the swallows, innocently eating flying insects—get poisoned, “and all this for a few dozen low paid jobs.” I’m reporting what neighbours have told me; they may not have it exactly precisely accurate, but i believe they do have the main cause of so few swallows, and they are telling me fairly how little humanity is getting from killing these most beautiful and helpful birds.

Are there other ways than poisons and huge machines? Definitely! Ecoforestry has been a known alternative for two generations at least (Hammond, 1997, Martin, 2008, Pilarski, 1993, Wilkinson, 1996-7). It could be called a refinement of traditional woodland management: Cut the inferior trees, especially if they are crowded, wait to take the best until they start to fail or show signs they soon will, “make every cut an improvement cut”1 … or in another common ecoforestry slogan, “leave the forest better [in terms of prospects for growth in the next several years] than you found it.”

Ecoforestry works: Merve Wilkinson, on Vancouver Island, cut more timber from his 70 acres in fifty years, than was there originally; and at the end of that time, more timber remained than was there originally. Had the land been “clearcut” at the beginning of that 50 years, much less timber—and of lower quality—than was there originally, would have “grown back” by the end of those 50 years. (Wilkinson, 1996-7). Pilarski, reporting on the “Goebel-Jackson Tree Farm”, states that “… they can rotate the volume of timber in their forest in 30 years while maintaining a complete, fully-stocked forest. If the land were clearcut, it would take at least 100 years to grow the same volume.”[p. 249]

The hirondelles flying and nesting above Merve Wilkinson’s land had nothing to fear from poisoned insects. They worked to keep insect populations in check, and their work, combined with Merve’s selection logging practices, left no “need” for poisons. As best we can tell, the same basic techniques, the ecoforestry approach, will work about as well in Laurentian and Acadian forests—with, of course, different timber species growing at their different normal rates. There are some indications from Nova Scotia that it does (Miller, 2008).

Beautiful to watch, beneficial to humans and to ecosystems, the swallows ought to be the symbol and an important measure of our care of the land and what it grows. I’ve never met a rural human being who didn’t enjoy the beauty of their flight, or the fact that they can keep down the numbers of blackflies and mosquitoes. To restore their numbers to normal, takes basically the removal of heavy industrial machinery and chemicals and their replacement with old fashioned manual labour, refined with some recent tools and ecological science.

That manual labour is naturally men’s work: Men’s large muscles, especially in the arms and upper body, are much more powerful and accurate than women’s2.. Women’s anatomy is determined more by pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation (as it rightly should be for the good of wee children); men’s, by many thousands of years of skilled manual work from hunting and fishing to logging and plowing with animals.

If we men do our part to replace the chemicals and machinery with skilled heavy labour, then the swallows can do theirs without being poisoned, and the fields and forests can provide them with a more consistent supply of healthier insect food. Politically, that means putting the care of the land in the hands of good men rather than the torn up tracks of machines and the short run Profit Motives and bureaucracies which value money too much and workingmen, too little. And since public opinion can appreciate the beauty of swallows more easily than the science of ecology—let the swallows be our mascots, ecoforestry’s and sustainability’s totem animals. Their eating habits deserve it.

If you read and speak French as well as English, i hope that the next time you go to any kind of political arena where “development” is proposed that risks degrading the region ecologically, you will take a few friends along and stomp the floor chanting hi-ron-delle[s]! hi-ron-delle[s]! (Quand retournent hi-ron-delles?—and other short slogans that will fit the rhythm. Unfortunately for political activism in English, the word “swallow” is harder to shout in good chanting rhythms.. at least that i’ve noticed. Some of you Anglophones reading this—show me how it can be done?)

It’s not men, nor women, nor especially children, who have devastated the populations of swallows. It’s heavy machinery and chemical poisons that have done it—and the human guilt belongs to those who have too willingly benefited from those “short cuts to production.” If we and our precursors had done the manual labour all along, if the land had been held by villages3 rather than controlled by corporations following the short run Profit Motive, and bureaucracies whose rules don’t seem to know any ecology (e.g Goldman, 1970), our forests would be far better, our food would be cleaner and more nutritious, and our skies would have twice, five times, maybe even more than ten times as many of these beautiful insect eaters.

Political leaders, bureaucracies, and “businesses” who aren’t for the birds, are not worth as much as the swallows themselves.

a few of the many References:

Bailey, Chris, and Neal Benneworth 1978 “Why aerial spraying against spruce budworms should be banned in the Maritimes.” Science Forum 9 (June) 8-11

Catton, William R., Jr. 1980 Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Urbana, London, and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Paperback 1982

duDoward, Robert [1995] Invited Address, The Business of Good Forestry conference. University of Vicoria, BC: Nov. 15. The Haida Nation has been able to sell wood that conventional practice would burn for good prices, and is using BC Forest Renewal money to restore salmon streams bad logging made “extinct”.

Gilles, Jere Lee, and Keith Jamgaard (1981) “Overgrazing in pastoral areas” Sociologia Ruralis XXI: 2: 129-141. & (COMMON ownership may facilitate ecological management because the social norms in traditional management constitute an efficient collective strategy.)

Goldman, Marshall I. (1970) “From Lake Erie to Lake Baikal; from Los Angeles to Tbilisi: The convergence of environmental disruption.” Science 170 (3953): 37-42

Hammond, Herb, [1997] “Why is Ecologically Responsible Forest Use Necessary?”. #4 in in Drengsson, Alan, and Taylor, Duncan, eds., Ecoforestry: The Art and Science of Sustainable Forest Use. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Lenski, Gerhard, Jean Lenski, and Patrick Nolan, 1991. Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill

Martin, Davd, 2003 ”Make Every Cut an Improvement Cut” Review of Mitch Lansky, ed., 2002, Low-Impact Forestry: Forestry as if the Future Mattered (Hallowell, Maine: Maine Environmental Policy Institute) Ecoforestry 18:1 (Spring) 39-40

Martin, Davd, 2008 “Three Cardinal Eco-Virtues” Ecoforestry 21:36-41.

Miller, Tom, 2008. “The Potential of the Acadian Forest and How we get it back” Ecoforestry 21:1&2 (Winter-Spring)

Pilarski, Michael, Editor (1994) Restoration Forestry. Durango, CO: Kivaki Press.

Pilarski, Michael, (1994b) “The Goebel-Jackson Tree Farm” pp 249-250 in Restoration Forestry. Durango, CO: Kivaki Press.

Pilarski, Michael, (1994c) “A Synopsis of some Restoration Forestry Practices and Principles”. pp 32-42 in Restoration Forestry. Durango, CO: Kivaki Press.

Vincent, Norah, 2006. Self Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man. New York: Viking Penguin.

Westman, Walter E 1977 “How much are nature’s services worth?” Science 197 (2 September) 960-964.

Wilkinson, Mervyn, 1996-1997. Personal interviews at “Wildwood”.

Wittbecker, Alan E.[1997] ” Forest Practices Related to Forest Ecosystem Productivity”. #2 in Drengsson, Alan, and Taylor, Duncan, eds., Ecoforestry: The Art and Science of Sustainable Forest Use. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers

Woodwell, G. M. (1970) “Effects of pollution on the structure and physiology of ecosystems.” Science 168 (24 April) 429-43

YLE-TV [Finnish state television network] 1989 Tehometsänhoito. Documentary on forest management aired January 1, 1989.


1. That was the title of my review of Mitch Lansky’s [2002] Low-Impact Forestry: Forestry as if the Future Mattered.

2. Lenski, Lenski, and Nolan (1991: 105) report US Army physical strength tests “indicate that, on average, women have 42 percent less upper-body strength than men and that only 3 percent of women can perform ‘very heavy’ tasks compared to 80 percent of men.” When she decided to “pass as a man” for a year, Norah Vincent (2006) went to a body-building trainer to build up her arms and shoulders to what would be normal for a man of her height.

3. Gilles and Jamgaard (1981) found that contrary to there being any “tragedy of the commons”, common ownership tends to facilitate ecological management because the social norms in traditional management constitute an efficient collective strategy..


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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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