Back in May I received a message from Kelly Virden at the Pine River Journal, who said there were "some nice, brownish and reddish birds" at the office. The birds made a nest at the peak of the roof that looked like a wasp's nest. She set up a bird feeder and the birds were big fans, she said.
I wrote back and said it sounded like a swallow's nest and that I would stop by and look the next time I was in town. Days passed before I did so. The nest was made by cliff swallows, one of six swallows found in Minnesota.
Many of us are more familiar with tree and barn swallows, but cliff swallows are internationally famous. On March 19 these beautiful birds migrate from South America to descend on the mission at San Juan Capistrano in southern California. Songs, stories, poems, and photos all have captured this wonder of timing.
Andrea Lee Lambrecht
Cliff swallows are elegant aerial acrobats and one of nature's most efficient insect predators. They can survive a day or two on berries when cold weather keeps insects from flying. Therefore, it's interesting that the swallows at Kelly's office fed on wild birdseed.
Equipped with long, pointed aerodynamic wings and short, wide, bristle-fringed bills, cliff swallows 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.
Although most swallows have notched or deeply-forked tails, cliff swallows have squarish tails that fan out and serve 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.
Predominantly living in dense colonies, hundreds of gourd-shaped nests may occupy a site. Comprised of a thousand pellets of mud and clay, both sexes build their 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.
The adobe nests are sparsely lined with grass, hair and/or feathers. Females lay three to five white oval eggs with brown spots. The 15-day incubation period is shared by both sexes for the one brood of the year. Sometimes there are two broods.
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 are white or cream; the top of the head is blue; the wings, tail and back are dark, with white tiny lines down the back. The neck collar and upper breast are buff.
Twenty-two species of swallows are found in the Americas and throughout the U.S. Five species are found in Minnesota: tree, northern rough-winged, bank and barn. The violet-green swallow is considered a casual species.
Cliff swallows also live in Europe. In 1974 in northern Europe, an early, widespread frost killed off the insects, trapping millions of birds without food. In a unique and unprecedented conservation effort, a small percentage of the birds were air lifted south to areas unaffected by the frost. Ah, my kind of people!
So Kelly and staff, there you have it. Enjoy the swallows in the coming weeks before frost sends them winging to warmer climes.
ANDREA LEE LAMBRECHT, naturalist and outdoors photographer, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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