A Bunch of Swallows Make a Summer

Or, when is a coat like a butterfly?


If you’ve been in downtown Martinez lately, or at the waterfront or just about anywhere else in North America, Europe, or Asia that’s near water, you’ve probably seen barn swallows zipping around. They move so fast it’s hard to get a long look at them, but in flight their deeply forked tails—hence the name “swallowtail” for butterflies and dress coats—distinguish them from other swallows. They often swoop and fly low, but the only time they land on the ground is when they’re picking up bits of mud for their nests. If you do see one sitting still, you can enjoy its glossy, dark blue coloring, with cinnamon face and chest and buff-colored belly. (Males and females have the same coloring but males are more vivid.) The reason for the swallows’ extreme activity is that they are hard-working aerial foragers, snatching their insect meals straight out the air. It’s not their speed—about 25 mph—that makes them so effective, its their quick twists, turns, and dives.

Besides the barn swallows (Hirundo rustica), you might also see cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota); violet-green swallows (Tachycineta thalassina), which live only in the West; tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor); and northern rough-winged swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) in and around Martinez, though the last three are a challenge. Barn swallows and cliff swallows nest on bridges and buildings, and they like open country. Tree swallows, the only ones that are present here year-round, like to be near water, and they nest in dead or dying trees with woodpecker holes if they can find them. The violet-green swallows don’t need to be near water—they like blue oak and valley oak savannas—but they nest in the same kinds of trees. Seen in this light, a dead tree is not necessarily an eyesore.

As you can see in the photos, the beautifully iridescent violet-green swallows live up to their name in the right light. Tree swallows look similar but their backs are bluish green and the white on their faces doesn’t go above their eyes. Violet-green swallows have white on their rumps and tree swallows don’t, but good luck seeing that. The northern rough-winged swallow is just as brown as it can be. Maybe the best way to identify it is to know it doesn’t look like a barn swallow or a cliff swallow but, like them, it has adapted to freeways. According to the Breeding Bird Atlas of Contra Costa County, “Along the Interstate 680 corridor one pair or more nest annually at most locations where the freeway passes over a surface street.”

Barn swallows used to nest in caves, but they gave that up sometime in the eighteenth century. As Europeans arrived in large numbers and spread across the continent, barn swallows switched entirely to human-made structures. At least they only nest in pairs of two. Cliff swallows nest in colonies, sometimes building hundreds of nests at a single location. I stumbled across some solid information about how to deal with swallow droppings and how to discourage swallows from nesting on door jambs, window jambs, and building walls on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website called “Living with Wildlife.” Among other things, I learned that swallows are “not a significant source of any infectious disease that can be transmitted to humans or domestic animals” and that they are federally protected: it’s illegal to mess with them in their nests.

A side note about barn swallows: As we know, ospreys will sometimes nest on human-made structures, such as the light poles on the Alhambra High School football field. Sometimes barn swallows will build a nest below an osprey nest. This is surprising, given the fearsomeness of the osprey, also known as the “fish eagle.” Apparently, the presence of ospreys discourages other birds of prey that might attack the swallows’ nest. The ospreys only eat fish, so they’re not a problem, and the swallows help them by alerting them to predators that might attack the osprey eggs or chicks.

Readers who paid attention to their surroundings as children have probably known about our local swallows all along, but some of us got the impression that swallows just live somewhere far away (Argentina, actually) and fly into the mission at San Juan Capistrano every year. As it turns out, the swallows are no longer returning to the mission, or at least not in the numbers they were so renowned for.

These are cliff swallows, and they zip around much like barn swallows, but with squared tails and notable white patches on their foreheads. They too build mud nests, gourd-shaped rather than the cup shape of the barn swallows’. They inspired much post–Mission era romanticism by returning to San Juan Capistrano every year on or around St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, going back to the earliest days of the mission. But a retrofit in the 1990s trashed their nesting sites and they built elsewhere, notably the accommodating eaves of the Vellano Country Club in the Chino Hills, which includes a capacious golf course. Cliff swallows like open space, and some experts think they were moving away from the mission anyway because the local environment has become so dense with buildings and landscaping.

Supporters of the mission have consulted an ornithologist about how to lure the swallows back. Human-created nests, attractive mud puddles, and imported ladybugs have not done the trick, and now they have begun to play recorded cliff swallow courtship calls in the mission gardens for six hours a day. So far this has been ineffective, but you never know—maybe if they brought in some ospreys?


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