Barn swallows love nesting in shops in the Himalayas.
The shopkeeper is serving his customer when something drops on the counter near his elbow. The man doesn’t even flinch, continuing with the transaction. On closer look, there are many white-and-black bird droppings on the newspaper beside him.
High above their heads, four identical chicks sit motionless in a small earthen cup. A barn swallow that swoops into the shop lands on the edge of the nest. All three mouths gape wide, each vying for the insect tidbit. A few years ago, the parents had ferried several pellets of mud and grass mixed with their saliva to build this nest. As it dried, it hardened to form a cup to which they return every year.
At first, the parent birds ate their newborns’ excrement, keeping the nest hygienic and saving the shopkeeper the hassle of cleaning it. Then the offspring pooped faeces enclosed in a membranous sac for easy disposal. But now the chicks are older and their parents can’t deal with their frequent pooping. So the chicks back up to the edge of their cosy nest and aim out to the cash counter below. These random squirts could have targeted merchandise, the billing machine, or the shopkeeper’s head had he not made some changes. He cleared the area of stock and moved his chair. Instead, the droppings hit a newspaper that the man changes as needed.
Many shops in market areas across the Himalayas — from Kullu in Himachal Pradesh to Kurseong in West Bengal — host the nests of barn swallows. Some have three or four nests, and the space above people’s heads is busy with air traffic as the parent birds speed in and out, provisioning their young.
When humans began building shelters, these cave-nesting birds were spoilt for choice. Unlike other birds that seek natural settings far away from humans to raise their young, barn swallows, as their name suggests, seem to idealise human-made structures.
Suhel Quader of the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) says even restaurants tolerate the birds’ unhygienic toilet habits. They affix a metal plate below the nests to catch the poop, so it doesn’t contaminate their clientele’s plates.