𝐖𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐢𝐬 𝐡𝐚𝐩𝐩𝐞𝐧𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐰𝐢𝐭𝐡 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐬𝐰𝐚𝐥𝐥𝐨𝐰𝐬 𝐯𝐢𝐬𝐢𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐢𝐬𝐥𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐨𝐟 𝐂𝐮𝐫𝐚𝐜̧𝐚𝐨!?
Many have asked this question over the last couple of days. Traditionally the months of August and September are Swallow months on our island, meaning that suddenly out of nowhere thousands of these tiny agile birds are roaming around all over the island in a flight spectacle that leaves onlookers mesmerized. The swallows, called Souchi in Papiamentu and Zwaluwen in Dutch are birds that migrate great distances during the fall and spring months in search of warmer areas and especially areas with a high density in their main food supply: insects.
The swallows we see on the island in the months of August, September and often October as well are migratory birds. These species, along with many other species of birds, will leave their breeding grounds in North America in the months of fall as temperatures drop and food supplies get very low. To be able to survive the colder insect-free months of winter, they need to go in search of other locations where the temperature is right and the food supplies are good. So they will fly all the way from North America to South America. You read that right, these tiny birds have the capacity to fly all the way from the United States to Brazil or even Argentina to spend the winter months in the Southern hemisphere. But they can not do that without preparations, and so these animals will feed on fat-rich and protein-rich caterpillars, flies, flying ants, and other insects to build their fat reserves for the long flight which often takes them over the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean sea. During their travels, they have certain locations they use to take a break from their journey and look for food to replenish their fat reserves to be able to continue to their destination. And Curacao, as well as Aruba, Bonaire, and the Venezuelan islands along the coast of the mainland (and of course other Caribbean islands as well), are their break station. The place they arrive to rest for a couple of days or weeks, to replenish their fat reserves with insects and to increase their strength to continue their journey South. And that is where the drama is unfolded.
𝗖𝗮𝘀𝘂𝗮𝗹𝘁𝗶𝗲𝘀 𝗼𝗳 𝗺𝗶𝗴𝗿𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻
In the last couple of years alarming news flashes of high mortality under migrating birds has given ornithologists a valid reason to be very concerned about the well-being of migratory birds. Mortality is always a normal part of the process, but the rate it has been reported is very worrisome indeed. Not only prior to departure from North America but especially during the trip South, bird spotters all over the Caribbean and Central America have reported a worrying level of mortality, where birds just fall out of the sky, spasm a couple of times and die. Without obvious injuries. Research has suggested that there are several reasons this is happening on such a grand scale. Scientists discovered many migratory birds do not reach their optimum body weight index prior to migration, their fat reserves are basically not enough to survive the long trip to the break stations. This happens because of the alarming decrease of insect life on the breeding grounds. Insect variations and numbers are collapsing, and the birds just do not find enough food to prepare for the trip. That is why their body mass is at critical levels when they do arrive on the island, causing the birds to be too weak to continue flying, searching for food, or finding a safe spot to rest. As such they often become casualties of traffic, cats, dogs, and other birds such as herons. Besides these obstacles, insect levels at the break stations, such as Curacao, are not on the necessary levels to give them the much-needed boost to stay in the air. Another scientific suggestion for the mortality rate is the high level of toxins stored in the fat reserves, due to the fact that insecticides and other toxins used in agriculture accumulate in the birds and are stored in the fat reserves. When the birds start using up the reserves to survive the migration the toxins are released into the bloodstream, causing their death. Heftier hurricanes during migration season are also a culprit in the ever amounting dangers in a migratory bird’s life. If the bird has to take a detour because of a major hurricane in its normal flight route, it might take up more fat reserves than normally.
Another issue right now on the island is the extreme heat. Not only humans, but animals suffer as well as it makes it even harder to rest and find sufficient food.
𝗛𝗼𝘄 𝘁𝗼 𝗵𝗲𝗹𝗽 𝗮 𝘀𝘄𝗮𝗹𝗹𝗼𝘄?
When you find a swallow sitting on the ground, not moving but alive and allowing you to come near you can be sure it is exhausted. If it is in a relatively safe environment, leave it be, as the stress of being handled by a human can cause it to collapse anyway. If it is not safe and can be killed by a car, cat, or dog, make sure to gently place it in a safe location (with a t-shirt) with a small supply of water (not too deep). Usually, when rested the bird will fly away and continue its journey. If it isn’t gone within 1 to 2 hours, provide some additional mealworms (available at pet shops) and observe if it will eat. To be honest, rescue missions of swallow often fail, but at least you will have given a helping hand to a small bird, coming all the way from North America.