There are silences louder than others. At Cabot Head, after so many years, I have grown accustomed to a certain soundscape. There are voices now familiar and that I expect to hear at certain times of day and year.
The sounds of summer, when I return mid-August at Cabot Head, are notably the chirping of Barn Swallows at dawn, when they rouse from their slumber in the Gargantua, our “own” shipwreck in Wingfield Basin. For as long as BPBO has been here, Barn Swallows have nested in the shipwreck. But, like in so many other places, their numbers have been declining throughout the years. And this summer, their voices have vanished from Cabot Head! Apart for three Barn Swallows seen in the first few days, none have been observed. And now, when we step outside before dawn to open the nets, we are greeted by the deafening silence of no swallows. No more chattering before take off, no more aerial displays of their flying prowess, no more certitude that swallows will enliven our summer skies.
I try to tell myself that it is possibly a bad year for them. Barn Swallows were here in June when I left: maybe they had a poor breeding success and left early; maybe the shipwreck is finally too derelict for them. I’m comforted by the notion that they will be back next year. But will they?
Barn Swallow numbers, like for all the other swallows, have been rapidly declining, fading away here and there, becoming memories in certain places. All “aerial insectivores”, birds that feed on the “sky plankton”, are in decline throughout the province and the continent. The swallows, the swifts, the nighthawks, and the flycatchers are all in trouble and it is not entirely clear why. But the common thread of this varied group is that they feed on aerial insects, so it has been suggested that there might be trouble with their food.
I would not have thought that I would witness the disappearance of Barn Swallows, such a common species, at a protected site like Cabot Head. Yet it is happening right before our eyes and we have been documenting it with the BPBO programme.
There are most likely multiple causes for the decline: nature is complex and it is not easy to entangle all the threads in this very real web. And, personally, I am not sure that we need to know all the details: we know that we, the collective we, are putting poison in our soils, in our air, in our water. Should we be surprised to see that it impacts the world, our world?