Two weeks ago, I wrote about the tree and violet-green swallows that nest in this area. They are the swallows that have dark blue-black backs and white under parts as they flash by.
There are other swallows that nest regularly in the area and that are also present in the big flocks of swallows that gather on utility lines before they depart for the South. There are four other swallows that are in this group that everyone can easily see in mixed flocks. The bank and rough-winged swallows are easily seen as different for they have brown backs and white under parts.
The other two have dark blue-black backs and therefore need a bit of careful studying to see the differences. They are the cliff and barn swallows. By the way, I found out years ago that my eyes could not change focus fast enough to identify swallows on the wing. So, most of the time I don’t even try. I look for those big perched flocks of swallows where you can lean back in a car seat or camp chair, and study them without breaking your neck and hope they will sit still long enough for a good look.
Cliff swallows are the species that nest in huge colonies on rocky cliff walls or on the walls of barns and houses, under the eves of other buildings and under bridges. They build gourd-shaped nests, which they shape out of mud pellets. They are the swallows that one sees in good numbers at Red Rocks amphitheater, and their mud nests are prominent on the stone walls. They are common over much of the local area and are quite different from the tree and violet-green swallows.
They are most similar to the cave swallows that do not nest this far north but can be found in most of the southwestern states along the Mexican border. So, if you are going south for the winter, you want to watch for them along the border and in Mexico.
The barn swallow is also a fairly common nester in this area but is not colonial, so it is seldom seen in such great numbers as the cliff swallow. The barn swallow is easily recognized because it is our only swallow that has a true swallow tail. They nest inside barns and outbuildings, carports, garages and in the past were common nesters in the outhouses that accompanied summer cabins.
They do have a blue-black back, but their under parts are not white, but are a light buffy chestnut or cinnamon color underneath, and they have a deep dark chestnut forehead, chin and throat. Females are a bit lighter underneath than the males.
Barn swallows are magnificent fliers due to their long wings and tail. Their wings look like they would touch beneath the bird on the downstroke. They don’t quite touch, but it does give them an easy graceful flight. They will fly in and out of the barn doors if they are open, but if closed, they will dart through a small broken window or a knothole if need be to get to their nest.
Barn swallows are common farm yard birds across much of North America, and I knew them as a child in western New York. They nested in our cow barn and hay barn every year. On rainy days when I didn’t want to be outside, I often read in the hay mow, and twittering barn swallows were always an accompaniment to those lazy summer afternoons. I always wished I could fly like a barn swallow. They made it seem such fun and so effortless.