All about the Jitterbugging Swallows of Paradise

I love watching swallows do the things they were hatched to do.  As much as we enjoyed our regular hooking and landing of big Chinook with Shane on the Columbia a couple weeks back, we found pleasure in the quiet moments between.  It was then that our eyes might drift off watching rod tips for salmon strikes, to the swallows darting over the big river—this way and that—snatching hundreds of mosquitoes and other insects from the warm still morning air.

Indeed, we could have used a swallow or two in the County Commissioners’ hearing room Wednesday evening.  They’d have made short work of the dozen mosquitoes at which we all took turns clapping.  …But I digress.

Swallows fascinate me.  Birds darting just off the water, dipping to grab insects or bathe or drink can stop me in my tracks.  I have, on occasion, been completely swept away at a four-way stop, or a stoplight, watching barn, violet-green and cliff swallows sweeping and turning and bouncing (“jitterbugging,” The Old Man called it) through and around cars sucking down injured insects rising off warm hoods or grills.  Other, less observant, drivers have, from time to time, rudely reminded me to get my rig in gear.

You’ve noticed those delightful stoplight jitterbugging moments, too, no doubt.  In addition to those barn (Hirundo rustica), violet-green (Tachycineta thalassina) and cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), our valley also hosts tree (Tachycineta bicolor), bank (Riparia riparia) and a fair number of the less noticed northern rough-winged (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) swallows, too.

Actually, with our renewed concerns over West Nile and other mosquito-carried diseases, the swallows of Paradise are ever more important.  They keep flying insects off horses, foals and humans.  Horse owners often tell me, enthusiastically and with a touch of awe, about the mud nests on the walls of their boarding barns.  This is good; individually and collectively swallows will eat many tons of flying insects this summer.

All of the six swallows in Washington are elegant flyers with long, pointed wings, and (except for the cliff swallow) notched tails.  They are all migratory birds.

Tree swallows arrive first in spring and head south last in fall, perhaps because they are the only swallows to largely winter within the U.S.  (Most of ours winter along the Gulf of Mexico or southern California.)  On the other hand,  barn and cliff swallows have among the longest migration flights of any land birds–some wintering as far south as Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America.

Tree swallows nest in tree cavities or nest boxes (especially near water), competing—often poorly—with mountain bluebirds, flickers, starlings and others for cavities.  Where nest boxes have been provided, their populations have increased.

In addition to cliffs (check out the Selah Cliffs Natural Area at the northbound I-82 rest area by the Training Center), cliff swallows use bridges, culverts, and buildings near water for nesting.  Mud nests are bulbous affairs, stacked one on top of the other, with entrances on the sides, facing a bit downward.  These colonial creatures assemble the most densely populated communities of any breeding birds on the continent; as many as 1,000 or more pairs—each pair with its own gourd-shaped nest somewhere in the jumble.

Barn swallows are our most common urban-area swallows, living wherever civilization goes.  Cup-shaped nests are made of mud plastered to the timbers of barns or other outbuildings.

Barn and cliff swallows have often been observed carrying mouthful after mouthful of mud, and shaping it with feet and mouth and body.  It’s hard work; one study found that a pair of barn swallows made 1,359 trips, covering a total of 137 miles in six days to collect mud and material for one nest.  In a lesson for us all, they still took time to play or celebrate.  They and others were seen carrying feathers high into the sky, dropping them, and swooping down to catch them in mid-air before putting finishing touches to the nest.

Overall, swallow populations are healthy and increasing.  It is always cool to see these five- to seven-inch long flashes of orange, purple, green or brown in rapid, skillful flight around the bridges, overpasses and buildings near water and ag ground in Paradise.

Learn more about swallows and any other birds of Washington from http://www.birdweb.org/, or any good field guide.

Swallows are true signs of summer.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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