Swallow Summer (1998; University of Nebraska Press; 371 pp; 2 map illustrations and 24 black and white plates; $16.95) by Charles R. Brown, tells the story of a long-term study of cliff swallows along the Platt River valley in Nebraska. If the book were as prosaic as my last sentence, I might never have gotten past the first page. But as it were, I thoroughly enjoyed this very unusual book because the story is approached from several different angles.
Most of the time, Swallow Summer describes the day-to-day activities of a team of very dedicated field researchers. These descriptions are creatively mixed with many scientific facts about swallow behavior. Everything is woven together with Brown’s personal reflections on the study and how his research has taken shape over a fourteen-year period. At the same time, there are many instances when Swallow Summer reads like a fine travel/adventure narrative or a well-constructed journal. This book may be many things, but it is never boring.
Another aspect of Swallow Summer is Brown’s role as mentor. Throughout the text, Brown provides the reader with a good supply of tips for those that may be contemplating a field research project. Brown even provides a few bits of commentary on the way scientific research is conducted today in academia. He indicates that “scientists compete like hyenas over a carcass for the pittance [in funding] NSF [the National Science Foundation] distributes each year….[and] many people spend more time trying to raise money than actually doing science.” Though Brown makes no secret about his disillusionment with academia and lecturing to students, he also makes it clear that he absolutely loves doing field research on cliff swallows.
Chapter one opens with a present-tense description of Brown’s return trip to his study area in southwestern Nebraska on May 8, 1995. He travels with his wife and major scientific collaborator, Mary Bomberger Brown, with whom he has written many published manuscripts, including the recent book, Coloniality in the Cliff Swallow: The Effect of Group Size on Social Behavior. As the narrative continues through the first few chapters, we are gradually given more details on the cliff swallow study and Brown’s three volunteer assistants, who are the other main characters of the book. Each day is given a separate account, right up to the time when Brown and his collaborator-wife leave Nebraska for home on July 27th, the last day of the field season. The effect is to give the reader the illusion that he or she is actually shadowing the author. But though the entries for each day are chronological, each chapter also has a loose focus. The chapter entitled “Information Centers,” for example, expands on the notion that cliff swallows in colonies tend to assess each other to identify well-fed individuals, who can then be followed to rich food concentrations.
Throughout the book, the reader is brought along on all aspects of the 1995 field season. The conversational style of writing throughout most of the book, with the occasional and surprising use of mild profanity, adds a certain intimacy and real feeling to this honestly written narrative. We are there with Brown as he trains each assistant to properly net and handle cliff swallows, and how to record information on data sheets. Brown gives the impression that he is tirelessly alert as to what the swallows are doing at any given moment, and he frequently asks new questions, and offers logical interpretations and cautious speculations about swallow behavior. Though Brown appears to be in his favorite element when collecting information on cliff swallows, he frequently expresses his frustration when things do not seem to be going right, especially when bad weather does not allow birds to be netted or when the swallows do not seem to be cooperating.
Brown has a single-purpose mindset during his field season: collect information on cliff swallows and band as many birds as possible. He seems to be totally immersed in directing his study from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week, for almost three months. He does not stop even when troubled by a bad ear infection. Independence Day is a field day just like any other, although he does manage to take some time off to watch a fireworks display—and, surprisingly, does not lament that swallows cannot be netted in the dark. On rare occasions he even treats his field crew to ice cream, and on one occasion takes them to watch a rodeo. Often when things are quiet at the swallow colonies, Brown may take time to look around at the surrounding landscape. The word-pictures that he uses to describe such scenes are particularly eloquent. On one occasion, Brown writes of “a glassy water surface, brilliant blue sky, soporific sun, and two white pelicans steaming along on the water directly in front of us.” So he is human after all.
In fact, Brown does seem to acknowledge that conditions may not always be pleasant for other people. For himself, he seems to shrug off what most people would probably consider miserable working conditions. Most of the cliff swallow colonies are located under road culverts, where Brown and his assistants set mist nets at the culvert entrances, and then remove birds from the nets to attach bands and take measurements. One challenging site, known as Mule Deer, is described: “The mud underneath the water is extraordinarily thick and gooey, and several assistants over the years have fallen into it. The cold, dark standing water has a slimy film, and the culvert smells of swamp, mildew, and rot. Invariably there are dead things floating in the water: swallows, ducks, sparrows, rodents, rabbits, snakes, turtles, frogs, crayfish, and many things too far gone to recognize….Yet I love this place.” He is fond of the site because Mule Deer has yielded some of the most meaningful information on cliff swallows for the entire study.
In the sweltering mid-summer heat, day after day, the field work continues. At one site the field workers are accosted by hordes of black flies; at another site, hordes of mosquitoes; then, Brown writes, “huge, biting, bloodthirsty, homicidal flies.” What can be worse than spending the hot summer collecting data with your shirt covered in bird excrement? Swallow Summer provides the answer: also being engulfed in dust that is mainly cow excrement; then imagine that excrement-laden dust combined with sweat. Not a pretty picture.
In the end, though, the result of fourteen years of hard work and dedication, with over 80,000 cliff swallows banded, is an incredible insight into the biology of this species. Brown, together with his wife, Mary, has made major contributions toward understanding the benefits and disadvantages of nesting in colonies of various sizes. Many of their discoveries on cliff swallow behavior have added insight into the basic processes of species evolution in general. My only disappointment is that Brown does not mention an application of his work that may also help solve the world-wide, human-caused biodiversity crisis that is presently occurring. Species are currently going extinct at a rate which may not have been exceeded for 65 million years, when a mass extinction saw the disappearance of the dinosaurs from the earth. There is certainly nothing wrong with doing pure research, but the problems facing the natural world today are immediate and extreme, and they require solutions now. Brown acknowledges that natural habitats are increasingly coming under the influence of our rapidly expanding societies, but his interest seems to be purely academic, related to the necessity of having undisturbed habitats (i.e., uninfluenced by humans) available for studies to answer evolutionary questions.
One of the reasons Brown wrote this book was so that “others will use this book to vicariously experience life in the field.” I think he was immensely successful in reaching this goal, because this is the first time that I have ever felt like taking a vacation after reading a book. I could almost state that after finishing Swallow Summer, I was physically exhausted. Even so, I still had enough energy left to want to pursue Brown’s other more technical works on the cliff swallow study. But, unfortunately, Swallow Summer lacks a bibliography. Brown also decided to leave out even the briefest description of the statistical methods and computers that he uses when analyzing data during the other nine months of the year—a time when, he writes, “The birds become numbers and words on a page….” And for that I am grateful.
Perhaps one day if I am passing through Keith County, Nebraska, I may stop to visit the cliff swallow colonies that Brown finds so fascinating. But I think I will avoid Brown himself, as he states that he is “curt with spectators” and “if we seem weird enough, maybe they’ll go away.” He won’t even know that I am there.
Review by Thomas V. Lerczak
[This review was originally published in Illinois Audubon magazine, Winter 1998-1999 issue, Number267, pages 22-23.]
Note: To read about the swallows of Illinois, download chapter 10, “Wings over the River”, from my book Side Channels: Download Chapter 10 Wings Over the River.]