Swallows Bring Summer – and Eat Pests

Based on conversations with several homeys over the past week or so, my recent garden experience is about normal for this particular year. Even at mid-day, I was finding that the mosquitoes would suddenly outnumber the weeds I was pulling. I found myself praying – begging really – for swallows. Thankfully, we are entering their season.

I love watching swallows – just off the water, dipping for insects or a drink – or most anywhere. I have, on occasion, been swept away at four-way stops, or stoplights, watching violet-green and cliff swallows sweeping and dipping (The Old Man called it “jitterbugging”) through and around cars. I may, sometimes, have been so enthralled watching them snatch up injured insects rising off warm hoods or grills that other drivers felt compelled to rudely remind me to move my rig.

In addition to our stoplight jitterbuggers, we commonly see tree, bank and barn varieties. (There are plenty of northern rough-winged swallows in Paradise, too, but we seem to notice them less.)

In these days of concern over Zika, West Nile and other mosquito-carried diseases, the swallows of Paradise take on a whole new importance. They will individually and collectively eat uncounted tons of mosquitos and other flying insects this summer.

Horse owners will often tell you, enthusiastically and with a touch of awe, about the mud nests on the walls of their boarding barns. They will probably even tell you about the birds keeping flying insects off their horses and foals. With a nod to the enthusiasm of Deborah “Bird Whisperer” Essman for these amazing and valuable birds, let’s talk swallows.

All six of the swallows we enjoy in Washington are elegant flyers with long, pointed wings, and (except for the cliff swallow) notched tails. We see plenty of barn (Hirundo rustica), violet-green (Tachycineta thalassina) and cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota). Along with tree (Tachycineta bicolor) and bank (Riparia riparia) swallows, there is a fair population of the northern rough-winged (Stelgidopteryx serripennis). They are all migratory birds.

Tree swallows arrive first in spring and head south last in fall, and are the only swallows to largely winter within the U.S.  (Most of ours winter along the Gulf of Mexico or southern California.) Flying insects make up most of the tree swallow’s diet, although more than any other Washington swallow, the tree swallow eats berries and other vegetative matter when insects aren’t flying. This allows it to weather cold spells better than other swallows, which thus allows it to winter farther north.

On the other hand, barn and cliff swallows have among the longest migration flights of any of our land birds – some actually winter 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) and compete – 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 west-bound 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 make the most densely populated communities of any breeding birds on the continent; including as many as 1,000 or more pairs, each 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 are often observed carrying mouthful after mouthful of mud, then shaping it with feet, beak and body. This is work. One study found that a particular pair of barn swallows – to collect the mud and materials for their nest – made 1,359 trips, covering a total of 137 miles in a work period of six to eight days. It appears that they still take time to play (celebrate?), however, as many have been observed carrying feathers high into the sky, dropping them, and swooping down to catch them in mid-air before adding final touches to the nest.

Overall, swallow populations are healthy and increasing. This is good: few sights are more enjoyable than those flashes of orange, purple, green or brown in rapid, skillful flight around the bridges, overpasses, buildings, water and ag ground of Paradise.

Learn more about the sounds, nests, colors and lives of swallows from www.birdweb.org/, www.allaboutbirds.org, or a good field guide. Photos. Too.

As robins bring spring, so swallows bring summer – and help keep it livable.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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