Building a Better Swallow

As humans restructure the landscape, one species changes with it.

 

Cliff Swallow Sarcophagus - Charles Brown
BY CONOR GEARIN | THE NEW TERRITORY ISSUE 04

Evolution can happen any day, any time. Sometimes all it takes is a particularly nasty Midwestern rainstorm.

In late May 1996, two Ford F-150s rolled toward a roadway culvert in the flat plains of southwestern Nebraska. Rain streaked the windows as the biologists inside peered out with binoculars. Attached to the underside of the culvert were gourd-shaped nests made of mud and straw. Some birds fluttered around the nest, but many others sheltered inside. They might not have looked like it at first, but they were all starving to death.

A fierce six-day storm was keeping the cliff swallows from catching enough flying insects, their only food source. The biologists didn’t dare get out and walk closer, because that would flush the swallows from their nests, causing them to lose more of the energy stores keeping them alive. Dead swallows lay in the mud under the culvert.

For the scientists, it was a rough moment in a long relationship with the swallows. Biologists Charles Brown of the University of Tulsa, Mary Bomberger Brown of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and their teams of students had been watching, catching, and measuring cliff swallows around Ogallala, Nebraska for 14 years.


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ISSUE 04 MADE POSSIBLE IN PART BY OUR SPONSORS

Missouri Wildflowers Nursery

The Red Earth MFA at Oklahoma City University

Issue 04 Sponsor: True/False Film Fest

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