Tree Swallows: Nature’s Fighter Pilots

I’m not a “birder.” Haven’t been in the past, am not now, and…well, maybe at some point in the future I will be. I do like birds, but I’m not patient enough to be a birder.

A birder is, by definition, a bird watcher. Someone dedicated to bird watching.

I’m an observer. Amused by birds, but not (yet) obsessed with them.

To be a true birder implies more than the casual glances and attention that I’m guilty of. The title implies binoculars; hours spent in obscure locations, being still, hoping to spot a particular bird and capture a photo of it with a high-priced camera likely sporting a telephoto lens; keeping a “life list” of birds spotted and where; going on quests to add elusive birds to said list.

None of that is me. I simply enjoy watching birds when they happen to present themselves to me. Sometimes I have my phone/camera handy and take a photo.

My father appreciated all wildlife and shared with me his love of observing whatever was in our backyard or spotted on trips. That included birds.

Growing up in a suburb of Seattle, on a lake, most of the birds I was familiar with early on were water fowl: mallards, mud hens, the odd white duck (American Pekin, I think), Canada geese. Robins, crows and seagulls were the other predominant birds. I mostly ignored them all, although the baby mallards, all fluffy yellow feathers following their moms in huddles of six to ten, were fun to watch.

A tree swallow enjoying the sunset from my fence.

My move to Idaho in 2005 enlightened me to the delights of birds. Here, without the cacophony of city noise and with wide-open spaces I can see and hear so many birds. If I have a “life list” in addition to those I grew up with, it now includes: mountain bluebirds, goldfinches, western meadowlarks, tree swallows, snipes, blue jays, ravens, red-tailed hawks, eagles, flickers, pileated woodpeckers, house wrens, turkeys, turkey vultures, quail, great horned owls, magpies, killdeer, hummingbirds, ruffed grouse, sandhill cranes, red-winged blackbirds (aka “nature’s assholes” as I recently wrote here), snow geese, and many others I’ve yet to learn to identify. Some are just moving through as they migrate north or south, some spend spring through autumn here, and a small number are found year-round.

Fighter Pilots

Since 2014 I’ve had a nest box on my fence, in a far corner of the yard. Tree swallows return every year to nest there. They’re so fun to watch. I can’t help but want to learn more about them after observing their antics these past several years.

A few years ago I posted a couple of photos of the tree swallows on my Facebook page. An older gentleman named Bill, a former airline pilot, commented that he considered them nature’s fighter pilots because of their aerobatic skill.

Bill was right. Not only are they fabulous aerialists – swooping, strafing, and turning with amazing speed and agility – but they seem to have a sense of humor to go along with their keen flying skill. They enjoy using my dogs are targets, showing off their daring by flying fast and close to them in the yard. The boys pay no attention, which makes them safe objects for the swallows’ aerobatic practices. They strafe me as well when I sit on the deck reading on a warm evening. Every morning, and most evenings, I find two and sometimes three or four of them perched on my fence rail. The remain motionless, feathers fluffed – airing them out? – looking like tiny Buddhas for up to half an hour at a time, watching the dogs without a care.

two birds on fence rail
Two fluffed-out tree swallows hanging on the fence rail near sunset, their nest box at the far end.

These tree swallows don’t startle easily, like the other birds that visit my yard – hummingbirds, house wrens, robins and the occasional flicker. The swallows know the boys and I are harmless and let us get fairly close before losing patience and flying off. In addition to observing their antics when I’m in the yard, I watch them from my office window, flying over the field in fast, unpredictable patterns, catching their diet of flies and other insects. I swear they fly close to the window to check on me as well. Or maybe taunt me with their freedom and joie de vivre.

tree swallow in flight
Being observed as I sit at my computer, observing through the window.

I had no idea such tiny birds could be so entertaining or bring me so much simple joy.

A Bit More About Tree Swallows

Some tree swallow facts, from Wikipedia and Cornell Lab’s All About Birds. (Cornell has two fabulous free apps, by the way, one called Merlin that helps you identify birds you see, and BirdNET that lets you record a snippet of bird song to help you identify birds you hear. I love them. Give them a try.)

The tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) is a migratory bird of the family Hirundinidae. It has glossy blue-green upperparts, with the exception of the blackish wings and tail, and white underparts.

Most often seen in open, treeless areas, the tree swallow gets its name from its habit of nesting in tree cavities. They also take readily to nest boxes.

dog, fence, nesting box
Conall near the nest box. The first time he heard chicks in there – four years ago, when he was about 18 months old – he sat in front of the box and listened for several minutes, tilting his head, curious.

Breeding occurs in early May through July. The female incubates the clutch of two to eight (but usually four to seven) eggs for 14-15 days. The chicks fledge 18-22 days after hatching.

An aerial insectivore, the tree swallow forages both alone and in groups, eating mostly insects. Flies make up about 40% of the diet, supplemented with beetles and ants.

The generally accepted genus name is from Ancient Greek takhykinetos, “moving quickly”, and the specific bicolor is Latin and means “two-colored.” The other genus name, Iridoprocne, comes from the Greek iris, meaning rainbow, and Procne, a Greek figure who turned into a swallow. [Yet another example why word origins – etymology – is so fun.]

Tree swallows nest in structures with pre-existing holes, both natural and artificial. Once found only in forested regions, nest boxes have allowed tree swallows to expand into open habitats. They usually nest in the area it bred the year before.

The tree swallow has an average lifespan of 2.7 years and a maximum of 12 years. The oldest tree swallow on record was at least 12 years, 1 month old when it was recaptured and released during banding operations in Ontario in 1998.

Tree Swallows eat all kinds of flying insects: dragonflies, damselflies, flies, mayflies, caddisflies, true bugs, sawflies, bees, ants, wasps, beetles, stoneflies, butterflies, and moths, as well as spiders, mollusks, and roundworms. Their prey may be smaller than a grain of sand or up to two inches long.

***

So, not only are tree swallows fun to watch, but they reduce the numbers of flies that annoy me while I’m sitting on my deck on a warm evening, reading while sipping a glass of wine. Win-win!

tree swallow on fence rail
While trying to get a close-up…
bird flying, fence
…I apparently got too close and was scolded with an angry look and a strafing.

They’re rising to the top of my list of favorite birds. They’re like fun, quiet and unobtrusive relatives who come to visit every spring and summer, keeping you entertained without demanding anything in return.

I feel myself inching closer to becoming a birder. I admit, I’ve spent a few evenings recently sitting on the grass near the nesting box, phone/camera in hand, hoping to get some good photos of the tree swallows doing their thing. My dogs are thrilled with this new activity, thinking I’m hanging out with them on the grass to take their photos and wonder why I’m so often focused on a silly box on the fence rather than them…

In the past day, the fence rail has become an X-rated zone. Eggs and chicks will soon follow.

I’m going to buy a couple more nest boxes. It’s too late to attract new pairs this year, but maybe when the chicks of the current pair fledge they’ll check out the boxes and use them for their own families next year. The more the merrier.

sunset, birds, fence
Enjoying a recent sunset with my tree swallow family.

Here’s some video from May 7, 2020 of the tree swallows doing their swallow thing along the fence. They’re not easy to video. If I stand too far away they’re too small to see, but if I get close (or zoom in) I have to move fast to follow them, so a warning: you might get a bit air sick watching 🙂

Feature photo: two tree swallows fluffing their feathers as the sun rises over the mountains to the east.

9 thoughts on “Tree Swallows: Nature’s Fighter Pilots”

  1. I love these guys. I didn’t know them until I moved here. In Southern California the swallows (and swifts) were different, but when I got to the top of something and lay down on a rock to enjoy the “summit” they would fly low over me to check me out. Here there are tree swallows and a couple Big Empty Trips ago, I watched them do their “fighter pilot” thing but I thought they looked like Tie Fighters swooping into the Death Star (and I don’t even like Star Wars!) They were catching bugs above a wide canal. They avoided the ducks who paid no attention to them at all, and they avoided each other. Like you, I was impressed by the way they fly. Like you, I like birds, but I don’t see myself becoming a “birder.” But who knows?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Sauntering, as I understand it, means you’re letting nature inform you rather than heading out with an objective in mind. Sauntering means you’re out there exposed to whatever the day brings.

        Sometimes I go out looking for particular birds (Sandhill Cranes or eagles) and I never saunter and rather than feeling content with the experience I had, if I’m disappointed by not seeing the bird, no, not cool. That’s why orienteering left me cold. Running around the wilderness trying to get my card stamped by tagging appropriate locations just wasn’t me. I guess I’m not very goal driven…

        I think it could be possible for others to saunter and bird. Of course seeing birds is a great gift of a good saunter because, you know, I love them.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You’ve nailed it. Sauntering as I see it is simply wandering, wondering, being open to what presents itself, no agenda. Maybe some birds, maybe some deer, an eagle or hawk, or an emerging wildflower. All good, and new and different the next time you saunter. In my experience, expectations ruin the actual experience.

        Or maybe I’m just really easy to please 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. While I’m not a birder by true definition, I do spend a lot of time watching our backyard gang. Of course if I had your truly stunning background scenery I might take it up full time.
    😊

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to Rivergirl Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s