Speaking of Nature: The return of some familiar feathered faces: Tree swallows come home to the same fields they used the previous year

A male tree swallow gives a good yawn in the early morning light. This photo shows how wide a swallow can open its mouth when trying to capture flying insects.  

A male tree swallow gives a good yawn in the early morning light. This photo shows how wide a swallow can open its mouth when trying to capture flying insects.   PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON


For the Recorder

Published: 06-03-2024 5:01 AM

One of the great joys of the spring is the year’s first appearance of the tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). In my yard this event almost always occurs in the first week of April and this year was no exception. It was a close call, but the first tree swallows made themselves known on April 7 and it felt as though life had returned to the yard. There had certainly been birds present all through the winter, but there is just something about seeing pairs of swallows wheeling in circles over the yard that makes the place feel alive.

I think that the feeling is accentuated by the knowledge of the effort that it requires for these birds to arrive in the spring. Aerial hunters that depend heavily on flying insects for their food, tree swallows cannot survive the northern winter and must flee to places where insects can be found. For the swallows that live in our area, this means a migration south to Florida, Cuba and even as far away as Panama. This represents a potential trip of about 2,000 miles or so, which is remarkable for a bird that weighs in at a maximum of 0.90 ounces.

This means that any returning swallow has made the trip south, survived the winter and then made the return trip, often appearing in the same fields that they used the previous year. It turns out that tree swallows have the ability to live for many years, with the oldest known individual living to a ripe old age of 12 years. As a result, it is highly likely that the birds currently using the next boxes in my yard are quite familiar with the place and they may be exceedingly comfortable with the idiosyncrasies of my movements around the yard. I am not exaggerating when I say that I think I recognize certain birds and I get the very strong impression that some of them recognize me.

The arrival of the swallows is one thing, but the real fun starts when they begin to go house hunting. There is all sorts of drama as one pair of birds moves around the yard and pokes their heads into one box after another. I find it delightfully and ridiculously dramatic because, year after year, the same birds appear to nest in the same boxes. The only way to confirm this beyond any shadow of a doubt would be to band the swallows so that I could actually recognize them, but that is not something that I am allowed to do. Pity, because it would be so very interesting to see if my suspicions are correct.

On the west side of my yard there is a large grassy area where I have planted two nest boxes on 2-by-4 posts. Every year a pair of eastern bluebirds (Sialiasialis) claims the closest box and I think that it has been the same pair for the past several years because the nest is always made of pine needles. The box that is slightly further away from the house is then claimed by swallows, but the nature of swallow nests makes it impossible for me to identify the birds based on the nest itself. This is because Tree Swallows have the wonderful habit of incorporating feathers into their nests and there is no way for them to guarantee what feathers they will be able to find.

Be that as it may, the nest of a tree swallow is just about as luxurious as you can imagine. Fresh dry grasses must lend a wonderful aromatic to the inside of the box, similar to the smell of dry hay in a barn. Then, a collection of feathers must make the nest ridiculously comfortable. It is in such a nest that the female will typically lay four snow-white eggs and it is there that she will stay for about two weeks until the eggs hatch.

This is the current state of things in the swallow nests in my yard. I went over to check on things just the other day and I discovered four healthy bluebird chicks in the bluebird box. Then, when I looked toward the swallow box I noticed that I was being glared at. The female was not willing to leave her chicks and as I approached the box I saw her dive down to the safety of the interior. She must have been surprised when I opened the box, but she made no attempt to leave. I know this to be the sign of a parent who is determined to shield her offspring from harm, so I made no attempt to gather any more information. She would not have risked herself if there was nothing to protect. I can return later to count faces and see how many of her four eggs hatched.

To conclude this week’s column I wanted to take a look at the scientific name of the tree swallow. I do this specifically for my sister, Laura, who enjoys hearing some of the minutia associated with different species of birds. The genus name, ”Tachycineta” is taken from the Greek word, ”takhukinetos,” which means, “moving quickly.” The species name “bicolor,” is fairly obvious and it means, “two colored.” I’ll use a little imagination here and say that the name means, the “two-colored quick-mover.” I’m not sure that this is perfectly accurate, but I like it.

Memorial Day marked the official opening of the outdoor season and the early mornings are becoming extraordinarily beautiful. The Dawn Chorus is in full voice and if you are willing to get up and step outside at 5:30 a.m., you will be in for a treat. The birds will be singing even before dawn and if you arrive to a nest box before sunrise, then you may even get to watch the tree swallows wake up for the morning. This week’s photo shows a male swallow perched atop his box and yawning as he gets ready to start gathering breakfast for his sweetheart. Sounds like a typical Saturday morning in my own life.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 27 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.