We’re passionate about birds and nature. That’s why we opened a Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Shop in our community.
Vintage Oaks at Novato,
104 Vintage Way, Suite A-7
Novato, CA 94945
Phone: (415) 893-0500
Fax: (415) 893-0511
Email: Send Message
Mon - Sat: 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
Sun: 11:00 am - 5:00 pm
Located between Macy's Furniture/BevMo and Pier 1.
Tree Swallows, babies and parent - Local photo by Susie Kelly
The rain drops lodge on the swallows wing
Then fall on the meadow flowers
Cowslips and enemonies all come with spring
Beaded with first showers
- John Clare (of the 19th century English countryside), "Wild Flowers"
As in much of the northern hemisphere, swallows appear among us in spring. These long distance migrants journey hundreds of miles to our latitudes from Mexico and South America, while much of Europe sees their swallows arrive from Africa. Despite the quirks of our Mediterranean climate, the essential nature of spring remains the same. For us, our rains come, then our flowers, then warmer temperatures and our insects – and then the swallows which feed on them. We have several species of swallows, all of them fairly unique and easily distinguished, but alike in their life of rapid flight on pointed wings, snatching insects out of the air. They typically require open areas for this style of feeding; some species associate with water or human structures. Some good places to see a variety of swallow species are Rush Creek in Novato and Las Gallinas Wildlife Ponds in San Rafael. Here are our five most common species.
Identify: White undersides, shiny metallic blue back. Note that the entire upper part of the head is covered by the bluish cap.
Nesting and Habitat: Naturally nest in tree cavities; readily use nesting boxes. Usually found near water.
- Tree Swallows and Violet-green Swallows are both happy to use artificial nesting boxes when natural cavities cannot be found. They are excellent boarders to have in your yard and will provide a noticeable degree of insect control.
- Tree Swallows breed across the northern states, Canada, and Alaska (we're much closer to the southern end of their breeding range than the northern) and winter mainly throughout Mexico.
- Thoreau, seeing a group of tree swallows on a telegraph wire, noted that such a perch was "little enough departure from unobstructed air to suit them." While rather fancifully stated by modern standards, this gets at the essence of swallows: they appear supremely graceful and comfortable in flight, but their feet are good for little more than gripping a wire.
Identify: White underparts and green back. Unlike Tree Swallows, white areas extend around cheeks and eyes on face and white patches appear like a white area above the rump in flight. In the words of big time birder Pete Dunne, Violet-greens are "smaller, slighter, and more angular and elfin-featured than Tree Swallow."
Nesting and habitat: Open oak woodland and open areas adjacent to woodland edges. Nests in tree cavities or nesting boxes.
- While the other three swallows featured here have huge, cross-continental ranges, the Violet-green Swallow is a bird of the west only.
- As with other swallows, the Violet-green Swallow is essentially an exclusive insect eater (Tree Swallows will eat some fruits and seeds) and can consume several hundred flying insects every day.
Identification: Deeply forked tail, shiny blue back and face with light brown underparts and rich cinnamon throat and forehead.
Nesting and Habitat: Builds mud nests under eaves of buildings and structures. Widespread around human civilization.
- Very widespread across the world; the Barn Swallow is the same swallow you can read about from Virgil to the English Romantic poets, with populations on every continent except Antarctica. Both Barn and Cliff Swallows make very long journeys, breeding as far north as Alaska and wintering far south in South America.
- As the name indicates, Barn Swallows have a long history with people and have adapted very well to living in areas of human habitation. Nests in natural caves are essentially now a thing of the past in the age of human structures.
Identification: Squared off tail, light belly, distinct buff rump patch, and light forehead patch.
Nesting and Habitat: Colonial assemblies of mud nests built under bridges and overpasses.
- While they naturally use cliffs for nesting sites, Cliff Swallows today, like Barn Swallows, thrive in proximity to humans, who provide them with vertical structures with convenient overhangs, as well as mud-creating irrigation.
- Cliff Swallows nest in dense colonies. But these are more like villages or cities than communes; each colony is composed of more or less monogamous pairs (the "or less" is somewhat accentuated among Cliff Swallows by the close proximity of neighbors, unlike most monogamous birds who maintain territories). This has led Stanford swallow biologist Joan Roughgarden to say that Cliff Swallows "are perhaps our closest cousins" socially, living among others of their kind, but also with a distinct family unit.
Identification: Very plain, with colors ranging from brown to dingy lighter brown (not as bright white as tree/violet-green/cliff swallows from below). The least abundant of these five species, but not uncommon.
Nesting and Habitat: Nests in holes in creek banks or drainage pipes on bridges and similar structures, frequently foraging near water.
- Like cliff and barn swallows, many rough-wings have adapted well to human structures for nesting, frequently using drainage pipes or crevices in walls in place of rodent or kingfisher burrows in steep river banks.
- Their common name as well as both parts of their scientific name Stelgidopteryx serripennis all refer to a unique series of curved barbs on the edge of their winged feathers. You won't see this feature in the field, and we don't know any particular function of these barbs, but their prominence in the nomenclature reflects the traditional way of conducting taxonomy using physical examination of specimens, rather than necessarily considering the habits of the living birds.
Photo by Michael Rosenberg
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