and martins probably spend more time on the wing than any other songbirds
in the world. (Swifts probably fly even more than swallows, but swifts
aren't technically songbirds.)
belong to the family Hirundinidae. (Hirundo means
swallow in Latin.)
believe the first swallows to build nests at the San Juan Capistrano
Mission arrived in 1776.
are among the first migrants in autumn. They gather on wires and bare
branches, usually in wetlands or near lakes and rivers. At night many
roost in reeds in marshes. In medieval Europe, people believed swallows
burrowed into the oozy muck of marshes for the winter. How might that
idea have started?
baby and parent swallows learn each other's voices and stay together
over migration. This is one reason why parent birds are so much better
at raising their babies than even the most knowledgeable rehabbers.
the Cliff Swallows!
- The Cliff
Swallow makes nests of mud pellets, but shapes it like
a hollow gourd with a hole for the parents to enter and the
babies to look
out. The Cliff Swallow is the famous "Swallow of Capistrano." It's
also sometimes called the "Republican Swallow." This
has nothing to do with politics; Cliff Swallows nest in little
communities which reminded an early ornithologist of little
- The Barn
Swallow may be the fastest swallow. It's been clocked flying
46 m.p.h. The Barn Swallow is the only North American swallow with
a deeply forked tail. It's about 5 to 7 inches long, and weighs
17 to 19.8 grams, or 3/4 ounce.
- The oldest
American Barn Swallow we know about lived to be
8 years 1 month, but one European Barn Swallow (the same species)
lived to be 16 years old.
Swallows build their nests out of mud. The mud becomes
shaped like pellets as the swallows pick it up and carry it in
their mouths, and if you look closely at a swallow nest you'll
see many of the individual mud pellets that make the nest. The
nest is heavy, made from a lot of mud, and can be over a foot tall
to hold it securely in place on a barn rafter, bridge, or other
surface. The open cup on the top of the mass of mud is lined with
feathers, horse hair, and other soft items.
- The Barn
Swallow follows the 48 degree isotherm. (Why do you think
swallows need temperatures to be ten degrees warmer than robins
do to return?)
Swallows have the longest intestines of any swallow, allowing
them to digest berries and other plant material.
Swallows also are good at finding abandoned woodpecker
holes and other small cavities for shelter during cold nights.
That is why they are usually first to arrive in spring, and why
they can live so far north. Tree Swallows have a snow-white underside
and green- or blue-iridescent back. They weigh about 16.4 to 22.2
grams, or 1/2 to 3/4 ounce, and are 5 to 6 inches long. The oldest
Tree Swallow that was banded and later recaptured was 12 years
1 month old.
Swallows are closely related to Tree Swallows, and migrate
early, often in the company of Tree Swallows. Violet-green Swallows
live in the western states and provinces, and nest all the way
up into Alaska and the Yukon, as Tree Swallows do. They even look
like fancy Tree Swallows.The pure white of their undersides reaches
up on the sides so their flanks are very white-the white areas
almost meet on their rump. They're about 5 inches long. The oldest
known Violet-green Swallow lived 6 years 10 months. Violet-green
Swallows nest on the lodge and buildings around Old Faithful, the
popular geyser in Yellowstone National Park, so millions of people
have seen this beautiful bird, but many probably didn't even realize
- The Purple
Martin is the biggest swallow in North America, and the only
swallow with an all-black, or dark purple, underside. It's 7 1/4
to 8 1/2 inches long, and weighs about 2 ounces. Martins once nested
in huge colonies, but their numbers have dropped dramatically.
They nest in natural cavities, gourds hollowed out for them by
people, and martin houses built by people. The oldest Purple Martin
to be banded and later recaptured was 13 years and 9 months old.
- The Bank
Swallow is the smallest North American swallow. It has a band
across its chest like the slot of a piggy bank. It's 4 1/2 to 5
1/2 inches long, and weighs 13 to 16 grams, or 1/2 ounce. Bank
Swallows burrow to build their nests in sand and gravel banks along
rivers, gravel pits, highway embankments, and other places where
they can burrow into soft soil or sand. They use their beak to
dig, and as they get deeper and deeper into the hole, they kick
out the dirt with their feet. They nest in big colonies, sometimes
with hundreds of birds. The oldest Bank Swallow to be banded and
recaptured was 8 years old.
Swallows look like miniature female martins-brown backs, a
dusky brown throat and sides, and white belly. Rough-wings nest
in banks like Bank Swallows, only usually in isolated pairs rather
than in a big community. Their burrows are usually 9 to 28 inches
long, but some have been found to be as long as 6 feet inside!
- The Cave
Swallow once lived only from Mexico south, coming into the
U.S. to nest at Carlesbad Caverns in New Mexico. Now the northern
Mexico population is increasing, and birdwatchers are seeing more
and more Cave Swallows in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida,
and north to Nebraska and all the way up the Atlantic coast to
Nova Scotia. Birders often look for them in the culverts that drain
roads. Do these swallows think culverts look like caves? Could
this be why they're increasing? The oldest known Cave Swallow lived
to be 7 years old.