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It’s in your nature: Swallows: Gifted fliers, master insect eaters

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    This cliff swallow nest built with well more than 1,000 mud pellets is placed at its typical position where a vertical support joins a horizontal overhang. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    Barn swallows, common summer residents, especially near farms/pastures, have the longest tails of our local swallows.

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    Three male tree swallows vie for the attention of a female “checking out” a probable nest site.

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    This cliff swallow sits out a rain shower at Beltzville Dam in late spring. Note its conspicuous head markings and short tail. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

Published July 06. 2018 10:31PM

It is still time to find and observe our swallow species. Actually, six swallow species breed and live in the Times News coverage area. These species include the familiar barn and tree swallows, also cliff, rough-winged, and bank swallows along with the purple martin.

Tree swallows have become more numerous locally since conservation minded people have erected more backyard bluebird nesting boxes. Probably one half of the bluebird boxes are occupied by these swallows. Helpful insect eaters, they nest only once and by July 10-15 the adults and young usually disperse and move to more aquatic habitats. They remain there until late September when many migrate to the coastal areas of Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Some even overwinter there and I believe are the only fruit eating swallows. (Often eating bayberry berries to make it through the winter)

The female builds the nest and searches for discarded feathers (often chickens or ducks) to line the nesting cup. This will help you identify whether a bluebird or tree swallow has accepted your nest box. Almost all bluebird eggs are light blue in color while the tree swallow’s eggs are white.

Barn swallows are residents here from the first week of April until about the third week of August. Probably the most numerous swallow species (and most familiar to people) they build their mud nests in farm buildings, barns and even sometimes above second story windows on the homes of the farmsteads. They are excellent allies, catching hundreds of flying insects a day. One negative is that when the young have hatched they usually “relieve themselves” over the sides of the nest and decorate the floor or objects below.

If you live near a farm, as I do, you probably have seen these opportunistic birds following closely behind your lawn tractor as you mow. They have learned that mowing chases moths and other flying bugs into the air. They course back and forth around me as I mow and sometimes snatch insects only feet from me.

Worth noting is their long-distance migration. You will see dozens of swallows lining the utility wires one morning in mid-August, and if a strong cold front with a northwest wind pushes through, the next day they are gone, obligingly using the tail wind to help send them off to Argentina for the winter. If you happen to be vacationing on “Jersey” or Maryland beaches those few days you could see thousands and thousands of migrating swallows passing through.

Cliff and rough-winged swallows also are local, but less common. Cliff swallows have adapted to the large bridges and barns to place their intricate mud nests. The pine run Cove Bridge and old barn near the breast hold numerous nests. Cliff swallows resemble barn swallows, but their squares tails distinguish them from the long, forked tail of the barn swallow.

Rough-winged swallows nest in overhanging stream banks, but like many other species they have adapted to man. Today, many “rough wings” nest in the 4-inch drainage pipes in retaining walls and most notable, in the cantilever at the Lehigh Gap.

Bank swallows are the smallest of our swallows and they excavate their nesting cavities in high loose soil banks along streams or the Lehigh River. Swallows are all relatively small, ranging from the bank swallow’s 5½ inch size to about 6½ inches. If you wish to see most of these species at one time, chose a rainy mid-April day and sit along Beltzville or Mauch Chunk Lakes and watch them feed above the water’s surface.

Last week’s trivia answer: If you handle a black rat snake, garter snake, or ring-necked snake they may all give off a foul smelling musk.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: The barn swallow has a rather long forked tail while the other swallow species have shorter tails. Why? (Hint: reread the column for an obvious explanation.)

Contact Barry Reed at

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