Clinging precariously to the side of the building, the cliff swallow fans its squared-off tail and takes a momentary rest before venturing out to gather another mud spitball to add to its nest. Comrades are doing the same. Although a number of birds peek at me from their cup-like abodes, the group seems oblivious to my presence as I gawk, fascinated by their industriousness.
I love swallows and never tire of watching them on the wing. I'm especially fond of the tree swallows that nest in the bluebird boxes scattered around my place. However, it is the cliff swallow that is closest to my heart.
A number of years ago I raised two orphans that I scooped up from the streets of Walker in early summer. One took wing rather early, but the other, who I named Beep, lived in my sheet-covered sunroom. Beep spent many weeks winging around the temporary aviary before I released him among a colony of cliff swallows north of Cuyuna.
Cliff swallows are elegant aerial acrobats and one of nature's most efficient predators of insects. In fact, they feed exclusively on such, although some may survive one or two days on berries when cold weather keeps insects from flying.
Equipped with long, pointed aerodynamic wings and short, wide, bristle-fringed bills, they spend most of the day in constant search of food. Occasionally, they will rest on wires or tree branches. Their short legs are adapted only for perching, unlike bank and rough-winged swallows that use their legs for digging tunnels as well.
Cliff swallows share the same cinnamon, white and iridescent blue color scheme as barn swallows, but in a different pattern. The throat, sides of the head and rump are cinnamon; the forehead and belly, whitish; the top of the head blue; the wings, tail and back are dark (with white tiny lines down the back); and the neck collar and upper breast are buff. The white dash across the forehead will quickly let you know it's a cliff swallow.
Although most swallows have notched or deeply-forked tails, cliff swallows have squarish ones that fan out and act as braces. This tail shape serves to support the swallows when they land on the sides of cliffs, dams, buildings and bridges to build their nests.
Living in dense colonies, hundreds of gourd-shaped nests may occupy a site. Comprised of about a thousand pellets of mud and clay, both sexes build the nest over a period of one to two weeks. The globular chamber narrows toward the entrance, which faces downward so that no water trickles in.
Once the adobe home is constructed, it is sparsely lined with grass, hair and/or feathers. The female then lays three to five white oval eggs that are splotched with brown spots. The 15-day incubation responsibilities are shared by both sexes for the one brood of the year, although occasionally two broods are produced.
Harbingers of spring, hundreds of cliff swallows annually arrive at the old Mission San Juan Capistrano in southern California. Every year, often on March 19, the swallows faithfully wing northward from their wintering grounds in South America. Mission authorities have noted their arrival since 1776, naturalists have studied its regularity for years, people have annually gathered to view the spectacle and the phenomenon has even been penned in the lines of a song. I, too, once basked in the spring sun of Capistrano and watched the birds dip and dive around the mission bells. It was a sight to behold.
There are 22 species of swallows present in the Americas. Found throughout all of the United States, cliff swallows are considered common in Minnesota. Our state is also home to several relatives, including the barn, bank, tree, violet-green and northern rough-winged swallows and their larger kin, the purple martin. Most of these birds nest in colonies and often are seen in large mixed groups.
Cliff swallows also live throughout Europe. In 1974 in northern Europe a notably early, widespread autumnal frost killed off insects and trapped millions of birds without food. In a unique and unprecedented human conservation effort, a small percentage of the birds were effectively airlifted south to areas unaffected by the frost. Ah, my kind of people!
Watch now for cliffs and their kin sweeping through summer skies in search of insects. Enjoy them while you can as they often depart early for warmer climes.
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