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Reflections in Nature: Swallows are often mistaken for swifts

Shown are juvenile barn swallows in a nest. PHOTO PROVIDED

I recently called my friend Bob Bastion to see if the barn swallows have returned to build their nests under the eaves of his cabinet shop. In recent years, he would report that the birds would arrive at the beginning of May after a stretch of warm days.

The famous swallows return on schedule to Capistrano, California, while the vultures also return each year to Hinkley, Ohio. These two arrivals are always greeted by large crowds with cameras clicking and media announcing their arrival.

In Bradford County, we have our famous arrivals that go unnoticed by most of the population. Our barn swallows come with the same regularity as the two species mentioned above, but without the same amount of fanfare.

I look forward to the arrival of the chimney swifts in Troy. Although swallows are sometimes mistaken for swifts, they are not related. Swallows are not in flight as often as the swifts, however, swallows possibly spend more time in daytime flight than any other songbird. Swallows are not as fast as swifts and usually fly lower, more erratic and in smaller flocks. Swallows will dive down to feed, almost brushing the tops of the grass or touching the ground.

Some outward differences are that swallows have 12 tail feathers while swifts have 10 and swallows have facial bristles and swifts do not.

When the colonists arrived in America, they noticed the barn swallows and realized they were almost identical to the beloved swallows from their homeland. After the new settlers noticed that the stables and outhouses were their ideal nesting places, they were appropriately named barn swallows.

The birds were able to extend their range as the pioneers moved west but the tightly closed barns and farm structures of today are not as ideal as the open lofty hay mows of the old barns.

Barn swallows spend the winter in South America, and on their return, they nest as far north as Northern Alaska. These birds do not return to our area until winter is completely over unlike the tree swallows, which can switch their diet to seeds, the barn swallows do not have this ability. Swallows are thought to be quite precise in their arrival from the south, arriving according to the weather rather than a date on the calendar.

It would be disastrous if a cold snap occurred after the barn swallows returned for they would die by the hundreds due to exposure and starvation.

Year after year the barn swallows return to the same nest site. Courtship begins as the birds interlock bills and preen each other’s feathers. During courtship, the male chases the female in a long courtship flight, while constantly calling kavik-kavik-wit-wit. These courtship notes are distinctively different than those of the cliff swallows, which often nest in the same barns. This difference also helps the two from interbreeding.

Barn swallows can choose to repair their old nests or build new ones. In either case, they need a supply of mud, grass or straw. Both the male and female gather beaks full of mud, which is rolled into pellets, and using their bills as trowels, the pellets are tapped into place. The cup is built up with alternate layers of mud and straw. The nest, which is lined with feathers and animal hair, usually rests on a beam; however, it could be plastered against the side of a wall.

The female will lay either four or five eggs which are white and spotted with reddish brown. The male shares the 13-17 day incubation period, and the young will leave the nest in 18-23 days after hatching. At this time, the parents entice the young away from the nest.

With food in their mouths, the parents fly back and forth, within the young’s reach. After leaving the nest, the male trains the young to forage for food. In the southern or temperate parts of the country, the female lays another clutch of eggs. The family will remain together for 11 days after the young leave the nest. They could return to roost for several nights, though. It is estimated that a pair of barn swallows will fly approximately 600 miles a day in search of food for their young.

The barn swallow is our only swallow with white spots appearing on its deeply-forked tail. The male has a metallic blue-black upper body, a red-brown forehead and a rich brown breast. The female is duller in appearance, however I read where this is not always so.

In the fall all swallows are among the earliest migrating birds to head south. They are seen gathering in large flocks and sitting on utility wires during the day. At night, they roost near marshes and swamps among the reeds. This custom, along with the sudden disappearance of the swallows when migrating south, caused people in medieval Europe to believe that swallows hibernated in the mud of marshes.

While migrating, many birds fly by night and feed by day, the barn swallows travel only in the daytime. At night, barn swallows stop at roosting areas known as migrating stations, which they use year after year. The swallows travel slowly and will fly around a large body of water rather than fly across. Barn swallows can cover a distance of one mile in less than two minutes.

While migrating, they have a direct-flight cruising speed of 40 miles per hour and have been clocked at speeds up to 46 miles per hour. At this rate, it doesn’t take a long time for barn swallows to reach their wintering grounds in either Central or South America.

The only time barn swallows are found on the ground is when they are collecting mud for their nests. While in flight, they feed by holding their mouths fully open, which enables them to scoop hundreds of flying insects out of the air

Worldwide there are 100 species of swallows, and in the United States there are 31 species. Here in Pennsylvania, we have five breeding species: barn, cliff, tree, bank and northern rough-winged swallow — whose name comes from hooks along wing feathers.

Bill Bower is a retired Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Officer. Read his blog and listen to his podcasts on the outdoors at www.onemaningreen.com.

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