mud and straw. Bank swallows
favor excavating holes into riverbanks, gravel pits, highway cuts,
and other steep embankments
with soft earth. Cliff swallows
construct their gourd-shaped
dwellings under the eave of a
building or on the side of a
rock face. Tree swallows prefer a
woodpecker hole or other cavity
for their soft, feather-lined, cuplike nest.
Because they depend almost
entirely on insects for food, when
cold weather draws near and
the bugs disappear, so do the
swallows. They migrate south,
sometimes in flocks of several
thousand, and spend the winter
in Central or South America.
Come spring, they return to their
ancestral breeding grounds, often
arriving on the same day each
year, such as on March 19 at the
famous San Juan Capistrano
Mission in California.
Moving to western Colorado
shortly after high school, I found
myself fascinated by the violet-green swallows that populate the
canyons, cliffs, and lakeshores
of the region during summer.
These are the true daredevils of
the animal world, dive-bombing
at 100 miles an hour inches from
solid stone, sometimes so close
to me I could feel the passing
breeze on my skin. I would sit
for hours upon a high point and
enjoy the show as they raced
through the heavens like arrows
ered angels that have been con-
sidered a sign of good luck since
ancient times. Indeed, the deliber-
ate destruction of a swallow nest
is believed to bring misfortune
and even catastrophe upon the
house and its inhabitants.
Here in the United States,
there are six common species
of swallows: barn, cliff, tree,
bank, rough-winged, and violet-green. (Purple martins are much
larger, and cave swallows have a
restricted range, so I’m not going
to include those two species in
this reflection.) Several of the six
swallow species are challenging
to distinguish without binoculars.
All swallows have long, pointed
wings and dark colors on the
back with paler shades beneath;
most have a forked tail.
Swallows spend most of their
waking hours in the air, in the
sky, in the skillful pursuit of flying insects. They normally nest
in colonies varying in size from a
pair of homes to several hundred.
A sociable tribe, swallows often
hunt and rest communally. If
other birds approach their nest,
they will aggressively defend it.
More than once, I have seen them
noisily mob a hawk and chase it
away, furiously pecking at its tail
feathers like snapping scissors.
As for shelter, barn swallows
choose elevated sites, especially
man-made structures such as
barns, bridges, and grain elevators to build their sturdy nests of