Songbirds galore are singing and courting everywhere in the Northland. Many are actively building nests or are already nesting and raising offspring. Here at my home, robins are nesting in the spruce trees next to the house, male house wrens are stuffing bird houses full of sticks, and, for the first time ever, a pair of barn swallows are building a nest underneath the roof overhang above the front steps.
Swallows are among a group of birds that I enjoy having around. Six of the nine North American species of swallows migrate to Minnesota to breed and nest every spring. And all of them share similar physical characteristics with one another, but each is quite unique in its own right.
The purple martin is that condo-loving, socialite of the swallow world. Here’s a swallow that has come to rely almost exclusively on birdhouses for nesting (although none have adopted my condo yet!). Like some of the other swallow species, purple martins are cavity nesters. Yet perhaps due in part to the loss of their preferred nesting habitat, these colonial nesting birds somehow adapted to nesting inside of artificial nesting structures.
Two other Minnesota swallows are referred to as “brown” swallows: the northern rough-winged swallow and the bank swallow. Although having never observed the Rough-winged swallow, I’m very familiar with bank swallows from time spent canoeing on the Crow Wing River. These swallows are common sights along the sandy, high banks that occur alongside the river.
Both species nest in holes they excavate themselves in sandbanks. Obviously, the sand of choice has to be of the right consistency, otherwise, their burrows would collapse. Bank swallows, the more sociable of the two swallows, are colonial nesters, whereas northern Rough-winged swallows nest singly.
Another common swallow that nests in Minnesota each season, frequently near water and often underneath bridges, inside large culverts, or beneath the eaves of buildings, is the attractive cliff swallow. Here’s a species of swallow that builds perhaps the most unique of the nest-building swallows.
Shaped like gourds, cliff swallow nests are constructed entirely out of mud pellets comprised of sand, silt and clay. From 1,000 to 1,400 mud pellets, which also represents that many mouthfuls of mud and trips to the nest! Building one of these nests takes one to two weeks.
The last two swallows I am forever grateful for because of their abundance and eagerness to use birdhouses and other human-made structures are the ubiquitous and cheery tree swallow and the chirpy, acrobatic barn swallow.
Tree swallows are stocky, broad-winged swallows with very white breasts, giving them an almost penguin-like appearance when perched with folded wings. Widespread amongst all swallows, tree swallows, like purple martins, choose tree cavities and birdhouses for nesting and raising offspring. In fact, this year a pair of tree swallows have taken up residence in one of the apartments of my once-vacant 12-hole purple martin house.
Lastly, as already mentioned, is the sweet and beautifully colored barn swallow that I came to know so well as a young boy on the farm. This orange-breasted swallow with the deeply forked tail is an elegant-looking bird to be sure.
Constructing its half-cup nest of mud and organic materials underneath the eaves of buildings or onto rafters or floor joists inside of buildings, the tolerant barn swallow seems unaffected by human activity. Even so, don’t expect a barn swallow to sit idly by while you observe them caring for nestlings or guarding their nest. They’ll swoop and dive and chirp wildly at you in their unending attempts to drive you away. Excellent parents, barn swallows will frequently raise two broods each season.
Swallows are birds designed for capturing flying insects in the air while they themselves careen through the sky with no apparent effort. Birds of beauty and grace, swallows are birds to appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.