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The Back Porch

Spring on the Wing

Spring on the Wing

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors May-June 2013 issue

Illustration by E.R. Jenne

Last week on a warm, sunny afternoon—the kind of spring day that makes me almost welcome global warming and hope that winter has been outlawed—mayflies hovered in clouds over the Missouri River in north-central Montana.

It wasn’t the kind of heavy hatch that happens in summer, but it was heartening to see one more sign that spring is back. By the next day, cliff swallows had returned to the river and were flying around with their mouths open, gobbling up the insect protein. Their arrival is another indication that the seasons are changing.

Swallows are amazing birds, and Montana is lucky to host six species: cliff, barn, tree, bank, northern rough-winged, and violet-green. A closely related species is the purple martin, found only in the state’s northeastern corner.

All swallow species have two things in common: a bug diet and aerobatic skill.

A swallow flies around with its short-but-gaping mouth spread wide, snatching bugs from the air like a shortstop nabbing line drives. A single barn swallow can eat 850 bugs in one day. To keep themselves fed, swallows spend more time in flight than any other songbird.

And what flight.

Darting, pirouetting, diving—swallows have few peers in nature. Ever seen one of those military air shows featuring the Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds? The jets’ aerial maneuvers, not to mention the pilots’ derring-do, are astounding. Yet their aerobatics pale in comparison to what a swallow can do.
To catch insects in flight, swallows have developed a slender, streamlined body and long, pointed wings. This anatomy lets them dart, bank, spin, stall, and otherwise maneuver in ways impossible for most other birds.

Because swallows depend on insects for food, their spring arrival hinges on the weather. When temperatures warm and insects emerge, swallows won’t be far behind, arriving from wintering grounds in Central America and South America.

Depending on the species, swallows are found throughout Montana wherever insects abound. Farm fields, barns, lakes, ponds, and streams are all good bets. Look for bank swallows where you see their nesting holes dug into the side of limestone or shale banks. Cliff swallows make the gray, softball-sized mud nests you see attached to the undersides of bridges spanning rivers.

It’s amazing they can build structures like that without hands or fingers.

Over several days, a mating pair repeatedly lands on shore, scoops up mud with their mouths, and forms it into a soft pellet. They stack the pellets, one by one like malleable masonry bricks, to make the nest wall. Barn swallows construct similar structures using the same technique.

Imaging trying to build your next house using just your mouth.

Sometimes barn swallows build their marvels of mud on the side of someone’s home or inside a garage. That inspires more cursing than admiration among many homeowners. FWP offices receive calls from guys generally favorable toward—or at the least indifferent to—birds who’ve turned into grumpy old men demanding to know what they can do to get those blasted nests off their house.

The short answer is: not much. All migratory songbirds, including swallows, are protected and cannot be hunted or even harassed (which includes nest removal).

If you find yourself with a swallow nest where you’d prefer it wasn’t, think of the good those birds do, like eating mosquitoes, gnats, and other insects by the hundreds every day.

Or consider sitting back and watching them twist and turn in the air. The fact that swallows nest near or on our abodes means they are relatively tame. To me, that just adds to their appeal.
Then again, I don’t have any living in my garage.Bear bullet

Bruce Auchly manages the regional Information and Education Program in Great Falls.