SWALLOW SUMMER by Charles R. Brown

SWALLOW SUMMER

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Out there in the brute world, Brown (Biology/Univ. of Tulsa), a former curator of ornithology at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, encounters rape and pillage, parasitism and unbridled egotism—just another day in the life of the cliff swallow. Yes, Petrochelidon pyrrhonota can be a mean and insecure little bird, but it’s also gregarious, its flocks more like hordes, giving rise to cooperation and altruism. What makes swallows— enormous colonies tick, wondered Brown? Why all the rudeness amid the circumstantial advantage of their fellowship? (“The obvious conclusion is that these birds are little shits to each other.”) Then again, what’s the story with those solitaires? Here Brown recounts a field season in his and his wife’s study of the cliff swallow, an informal calendar of days that communicates the electricity in situ research can generate, as well as the down times, when weather brings a halt to the proceedings. There is a wealth of lightly imparted information in these pages: the role of ectoparasites in breeding success; the effects of predation by owls, kestrels, and grackles; the transfer of eggs from parent to surrogate. Then there are the mundane worries of having an observation site in a highway culvert and keeping assistants entertained when hurricane winds prevent them from recording bird captures. And always there are the doubts, such as the question of whether snapshot tallyings obscure wider patternings. The marvel here is that while sometimes the copious detailing can be overdone (—We load up our equipment . . . we unload . . .”), most of it conveys a real sense of fieldwork: discoveries, wasted efforts, frustrations, and the sublime moments of being at the right place at the right time. If Brown teaches his university classes with the same relaxed aplomb with which he delivers this study, then he, unlike the swarming cliff swallow, is a rare bird. (photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-8032-6145-4
Page count: 371pp
Publisher: Univ. of Nebraska
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1998