There were two swallows flying around the yard last evening. It was just before dark, and I was pleased to see them for the usual residents of one of my bird boxes, a pair of violet-green swallows, did not return this year, and I have sorely missed them.
As a child in western New York, we regularly had barn swallows nesting in our barn. Their presence and companionable friendship were a part of my summer days from the time the first one returned in April until the last one left in September, and I ran joyfully in to tell my mother, “The first swallow is back.” To which she invariably replied, “One swallow does not a summer make.”
Oh, how right she was because it was often wet, cold and raining after that first brave barn swallow skimmed the skies.
However, despite our cold spring weather, they stayed and built their mud nests on the barn rafters. Since I often read in the haymow on rainy summer days, their sweeping flight was part of my summer. They came and went, feeding their young, seemingly oblivious to that girl curled up in the hay, reading a book.
Perhaps they knew that in dry springs, I was the one who made puddles where they could gather mud to make their nests. At any rate, we were friendly companions in the haymow, and I never ceased to admire their graceful, sweeping flight, accented by their deeply forked tails.
There were other species of swallows in the area, and as I began to grow older and started to go on birding trips with groups from the museum, I learned to know the tree, rough-winged and bank swallow as well. When we moved to Colorado, I got to know the western violet-green swallow as they were nesting in a bird nest box in our yard.
I was absolutely amazed at their ability to fly into the entrance hole at full speed and somehow manage to stop short of flattening themselves against the rear wall. They must have exceptional braking power. I’d love to see a photograph taken from inside a nest box to see how this maneuver is possible, but alas, I have never seen one.
The violet-green swallow is a westerner, and at first glance will look like the blue black and white underparts of the tree swallow, except that its white underparts come up on the back at the base of the tail until they almost meet on the cheek to above the eye.
If you want to sort out the different species of swallows, it is not difficult, just neck breaking. I would suggest you get a comfortable deck chair that you can set up near some utility lines where swallows love to gather this time of year, such as those near the Lake House at Evergreen Lake. Then, from this semi-prone position, you can observe them for hours without breaking your neck.
Swallows gather in huge mixed flocks this time of year to still look after their young as they are learning to fly and feed on the wing. It will be close to a month before they begin to actually migrate, and this gives you a chance to study and compare the different species.
The first thing to look for is color. We have two brown-backed species and five blue-backed species that are found with fair regularity locally. The two brown-backed species are the northern rough-winged swallow and the bank swallow. Their brown backs are obvious. The rough-winged just has a dusky throat and dirty white breast that fades into pure white under tail coverts.
The bank swallow has a very distinct dark brown breast band against white underparts. Both of these birds nest in mud banks; the rough-winged singly and the bank swallows colonially. If you sit and watch a large flock, you will see that there are many variations from the norm, especially in the immature birds.
The blue-backed swallows are violet-green, tree, cliff, cave and barn swallows. The cliff, cave and barn all have some chestnut face and forehead markings that are fairly visible. Remember, much of some swallows’ color is iridescent, so the amount of light and how it is shining on the bird makes all the difference.
This is the best time of year to learn about swallows. They are all insect eaters and must out of necessity migrate south before all their food is gone. However, the tree swallow will at times eat a few berries and therefore arrive early and are the last to leave.