Archived Mountain Voices

Saved by the appearance of a tree swallow

mtn voicesEarlier this morning (Tuesday, March 26) I gazed wishfully through my office window here in Bryson City. About all I could see was the fire station across the street just off the town square. Blue-gray snowflakes were slanting down. I was waiting for something to happen that I could write about. And then, as TV comedian Jackie Gleason used to say, “A-way we go!” All a writer really needs is a subject. Just a hint will generally do. The process of writing — and the way different writers go about it — is as interesting (to writers) as what gets written.


A starling landed on my window sill. He pecked on the glass and looked at me. His eyes were bright and shiny. His bill had become greenish-yellow as he approached the breeding season. Maybe he was auditioning for the role. 

He flew away and a house sparrow perched on the guy wire holding up the Clampitt Hardware sign. The house sparrow is uglier than the starling … or maybe I should say that the starling and the house sparrow are equally unattractive. Either way, I am not moved to write about them. A snowy morning in late March is not a good time to be thinking about starlings and house sparrows.

I had just about given up on my catch-as-catch-can approach to finding subject matter when suddenly a bluish critter sailed by just above car roof level. After patrolling Main Street several times it went elsewhere as quickly as it had appeared.  

It took me a few moments to recall the name of the bird. Memory is not instantaneous like it used to be. From “bluish animal critter in flight” I narrowed it down to “bird.” The graceful flight indicated “swallow.” So far so good. Next, I went (slowly) through a mental checklist of swallows that nest in the Smokies region or migrate through here in spring: 

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• No pale horizontal pattern on the forehead (not cliff swallow).  

• No forked tail (not barn swallow). 

• No brown body (not rough-winged swallow).  

• No large dark-purplish glossy body (not purple martin). 

• No broad brown chest band (not bank swallow).  

• Iridescent bluish-green upperparts with a lower body that’s whiter than falling snow (bingo!): tree swallow. 

The wait-to-the-last-minute and see what pops up method of locating subject matter had once again … at the very last second … proved to be absolutely infallible. Something always comes to the rescue.  

Tree swallows winter in the Southern states, especially along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Other swallow species are largely dependent upon insects so they winter in Central and South America. But the tree swallow has learned to survive on a diet of vegetable matter, especially the fruits of wax myrtle. 

With spring approaching the tree swallows can get a head start in migration and arrive on their breeding grounds ahead of other swallow species. This gives them some wiggle room in case they have a nest failure due to predation or disease or whatever. They have a second shot at raising a brood.

They do, of course, run the risk of running into rough weather by coming so early. But the one I saw from my window looked OK. He came armed with the instinctual knowledge that he could shift from vegetable matter back to insects. Somehow he “knew” that the paved area over the street was warmer than the unpaved areas in town. Flying low through the blue-gray snowflakes as he skimmed just above car roofs he was leisurely feeding upon insects seeking warmth. And I saw him doing it through my office window.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..      

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