by Pat Jaquith
John James Audubon described the diminutive (4.25″) Violet-green Swallow as “the most beautiful of all the genus hitherto discovered.” Indeed, there are few birds in our neighborhood that can compete when the sun illuminates the iridescent emerald green cape, amethyst and sapphire wings and back set off by a clean bright white belly, neck, and face. Read on for an account of one pair raising their young from a nest under the eaves.
Spring isn’t spring at our house until the swallows suddenly appear – a dozen or so swooping, diving, weaving in and out in an intricate dance for hours at a time. We welcome those ‘insect vacuums’ as we do the bat and the Common Nighthawk that take over the night shift when the swallows retire. Early this summer we thought we observed a pattern of a bird or two disappearing when they flew over the ridgepole, but didn’t give it much thought. Those darting daredevils disappear all the time!
One afternoon about 3 weeks ago, I opened the back door and noticed the remains of a tiny white eggshell on the rocks. I picked up the pieces, wondering what tiny bird had discarded an eggshell barely larger than my thumbnail! A few days later, we added a few pieces to our puzzle when we noticed one of those swallows disappear under the eaves every time we were in the area! Now we know the swallows are Violet-green, and we know where their nest is!
The parent would fly in, insert beak into an open mouth (5 seconds); insert beak into the second open mouth (3 seconds) and disappear. A few minutes later, a parent would bypass the waiting open mouths and fly directly up under the eaves and emerge at high speed in 15 or 20 seconds. Presumably, there are more open mouths than we can see!
While nestlings waited at the entrance, they quietly looked around, often craning their neck to look up at the sky where swallows swooped and circled. Just before a delivery was made, they would start a “Chee-chee-chee!” call. They usually were right – a delivery was incoming.
This youngster could fly, but it never went farther than the rooftop where it perched. It preened, called, “Chee-chee-chee!” when other swallows flew into the area, and once I saw one make a mouth-to-mouth connection on the wing. This one flew the few wing-stroke distance back to nest site where it seemed to visit the waiting nestlings before walking up the shingles to the ridge pole.
The male made many visits to the open-gaped nestlings. Conversations were the same, “Chee-chee-chee.”
One researcher reports that swallow nestlings eat 720 insects per bird per day. If this family consists of the 5 that I counted, that would be 3600 insects per day. If they fledge in 20-22 days, 79,200 insects were harvested. The parents will continue to feed the fledglings for a while until they are capable of joining the aerial acrobatics team and gather their own food. A guess might be another 25,000 insects the parents deliver. WOW! 100,000 insects to raise a family of 5! Whenever I got a glimpse of the beakfuls that arrived, they certainly weren’t coming with just one flying ant or mosquito – but no matter, that’s a lot of flying and a lot of insects that won’t be eating the plants in the garden or biting me when I’m outside!
The many articles I read about nesting habits of Violet-green Swallows agree that they are cavity nesters – using holes that were made by a woodpecker, a crevice in rock, or occasionally re-purposing a nest that other birds have made. While other Swallows, Barn swallows especially, find human habitations apt nesting sites, Violet-green Swallows are not reported to frequent human habitations. There will be some clean-up chores after these little birds depart to their winter homes in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, or Honduras, but the benefits of their presence are worth some janitorial time. And we’ll look forward to their safe return next year with new appreciation.