Raising swallow chicks with an I-phone

4th March 2015   •  By Jomi Krobb
Swallow chick that was hand raised by Jomi Krobb

© Jomi Krobb

Jomi Krobb tells the story of how he rescued and raised a pair of swallow chicks whilst working as a Ranger at Marataba Safari Lodge

The house in which I live has several nests under the porch roof. Two species of birds live here: lesser striped swallows as well as red-winged starlings. Returning home one evening I noticed that one of the swallows’ nests had been broken and opened; it seems the starling while building their new nest had ruined that of the swallows.

Underneath the broken nest on the ground were four swallow chicks. They had feathers already, so had probably been alive for at least a week. This, along with the fact that they were shivering and making quiet noises made me sympathise with them instantly. Unfortunately one was dead already and another one seemed undernourished and in extremely condition. Maybe the fall from the nest had also hurt it slightly. I decided to put this one down as its chances of survival seemed extremely low to me.

I took the other two in and built a little home for them in order to keep them warm. This involved ripping up a pillow and using the wool inside as insulation inside a shoe-box. Once in there the chicks stopped shivering. Now the important part: what to feed them? Swallows are insectivorous and these two were at the age it seemed that they would be able to digest insects. I scoured the house for dead mosquitos and creepy crawlies and when I had a small handful I attempted to feed the birds for the first time.

Unfortunately they didn’t respond to dangling a dead mosquito just above their beaks. Eventually I used an iphone bird app. to play the lesser striped swallow call and instantly the one bird opened its beak, revealing the bright orange inside, whilst excitedly vocalizing. It ate the insect and instantly opened its bill again for more.  Success.

For the first day the second chick wouldn’t eat. I was afraid that due to its high metabolism it would die soon so that evening I gently forced open its beak and fed it. About half a day later and both the chicks were now responding to the call from the iphone app; furthermore they soon started responding to me mimicking the call. It got to the point where I only had to walk into the room they were in and they would instantly vocalize and open their beaks for food.

My next challenge was to find a good supply of insects. The reserve manager and vet recommended I try meal worms so when the nearest opportunity arose, I bought a bulk load of them. It was only after I began feeding them the mealworms that I realized just how much these little chicks eat. They were each eating between twenty and thirty worms a day and I only had time to feed them four times per day. (This was probably the biggest difference between me raising them and their actual parents)

I was still constantly worried that because of the irregular feeding and the chicks’ high metabolism that they would not make it. Yet they grew bigger and stronger and within a week of finding them I began teaching them how to fly. In my bedroom. Initially I would throw them up a foot or so above the bed and they would instinctively flap their wings and land in a heap. Within the space of about five days the one chick was able fly and land above the curtains when I threw it into the air. About two days later the other chick was also able to. In the mornings I would leave the two in their nest and upon returning to the house during the day I would find them perched on the window sill, staring outside.

The birds were beginning to realise that I wasn’t their real mother and I decided it was time for them to expand their territory. When they were very comfortable at flying around my room I moved them to our back terrace, which is completely fenced on each side. The birds could fly here comfortably and get used to the outside temperatures too. Over the next two or three days I would find them perched on washing lines and also on the actual fence.

One night there was a massive storm and all the washing as well as the birds’ nest was swept into one corner of the terrace. I feared the worst but as soon as I mimicked the swallow’s call I got a response from the chicks. Reassembling their nest I realized these birds wouldn’t be around forever.

When I was feeding them then the birds would often jump onto my hand and almost take the little worms out of my fingers before flying off, completely of their own accord. It wasn’t a big surprise to me then that they disappeared one day, about 3 weeks after me finding them. I’ll never know if they made it in the wild but at least I gave them a fighting chance of survival. A pair of swallows also rebuilt a nest under our porch recently and they now live under the same roof as the starlings.

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Prior to working at Marataba Safari Lodge Jomi attended the professional safari guide course.

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