If it hadn’t been for a wrong turn, I would have never noticed the swallow nest under a ledge nearby. A parent had just returned, we watched as its glossy-blue back perched in the nest. We spoke of swallows.
I said, remember when bird’s nests used to dot the balconies and verandahs of shophouses? They all seem to have disappeared, have you noticed?
You said, there was a family of swallows who had conveniently nested themselves on an extinguished ‘L’ sign outside a Lawson branch in Japan. In response, the store never fixed its sign, for fear of disturbing its residents. I hoped they kept the store as ‘AWSON’ forever – the neighbours would love it, too.
Swallows in Hong Kong are much less fortunate, as their nest substrate gives way to redevelopment and light pollution. In addition to swallows, you can also find swifts nesting inside the city’s old buildings, distinguished by their tail which is slightly forked, but not as much as a swallow’s. Swifts have very short legs which they can barely walk with. They never settle voluntarily on the ground except to breed; they even drink on the wing. Hence the Latin word apus for a swift, derived from the Ancient Greek: a, “without”, and pous, “foot” – based on the belief that these birds were a kind of swallow that lacked feet. It is, therefore, a stroke of luck to see one perch on its nest.
All we see is but a nest. To the swallows, though, it’s a remarkable workmanship: nice neat cups of woven grasses and small twigs, camouflaged with moss and lined with mud. Whilst most of the wildlife chooses to stay away from civilisation, these little builders could seem counterintuitive. We may attribute to them a lack of understanding of civilisation, but that goes to show the bias of our own dichotomous understanding of civilisation and nature; we are impartial to the changing seasons, untethered from the circadian rhythm. Weathered and guileless, swallows have nothing to envy about us.