THROUGH THE WOODS: The swallows are back!

TODAY WAS A HAPPY DAY; I spotted my first tree swallow flying above a pond. I hope they survive until the more hospitable May weather. Every year when the first few swallows arrive I wonder what makes them head north before the rest. Maybe this is their first northern migration and they just go for it without the experience of the older and wiser adults, the rebellious teenager types of the flock.

Tree swallow in flight. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

When the intense spring sun warms the earth, the insects emerge and are ready to provide food for our returning birds. While we are swatting mosquitoes and worrying about ticks and Lyme disease, the birds, like the swallows, are gobbling them up by the thousands. As the water warms there are hatches of insects and our swallows follow the Hudson River north and skim the surface of the water to feed before branching out inland. I love to watch the river for them and when they arrive in full migration there may be thousands of birds. It is amazing that as they zip and dart they can be side by side and crossing near other birds and never run into each other.

It is impossible and dizzying to try to follow one bird. The tree swallow, like the one in my photo, is usually the first species of swallow to reach our place here in the Town of Austerlitz. They catch the insects over the field and ponds and then check out our bluebird boxes. Tree swallows intimidate the bluebirds and usually get most of the boxes for themselves. Caution is needed when cleaning out a box because some of the mice may still be in their nest. One fall I found seven deer mice snuggled in a nest of milkweed silk with nuts and seeds stored in the bottom of a bluebird box. One started wriggling around and leaped out on my chest and ran down my leg. Fortunately I am not afraid of mice. Sometimes a snake will take up residence in warm weather.

The next swallows to reach our area are the rough-winged and barn swallows. The rough-winged love to nest beneath bridges and zip back and forth over streams for insects. They are small and dull brown in color. Barn swallows have longer and more forked tails, and nest in buildings, under porch roofs and pole barns. Wherever there is an opening for them to fly in and out. My parents had an open garage and my father had to cover the car all summer to keep the swallow droppings off the car. The nest was constructed of tiny mud balls and perched on a beam over the center of the car. He wanted to remove the nest, but my mother defended the swallows. When we had herds of dairy cattle we also got the cliff swallows. Now they are scarce and I feel very fortunate when I find their more enclosed mud nests under the eaves of a barn.

Another small swallow is the bank swallow. They have a dark chin strap marking across the throat and nest in holes they make in river banks and sand banks. A typical barn swallow will bring about 400 daily meals, consisting of about 20 insects per meal, back to its brood. That is an incredible 8,000 insects per day. If you want to control insects naturally, this is the way to do it, and tree swallows are a great help around our homes. All you have to do is have an open area for them to fly, and put up some bluebird boxes. And, if you happen to get some bluebirds, that is a good thing too.

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