I’m greeted every morning by a pair of delicate little barn swallows that have been using my front entryway as a summer home for several years. They’re a little bit messy, but their beauty, grace, tameness and the happy chatter of their greeting more than make up for it. Mom swallow is incubating now, but I was worried a few weeks ago that they might not get a chance to nest this year. A particularly determined pair of English sparrows had decided that they wanted to use the little mud basket swallow nest for their own nest. They piled coarse grass nesting material into the swallow nest each day, and I threw it all out each day for weeks! I returned from the Boundary Waters trip to find the hen sparrow sitting on five eggs in the swallow nest with grass hanging out all sides. Those were thrown out, too, and that finally convinced the sparrows to move on. My swallows had returned and started to make another nest with mud smeared all over the top of my front door. With the sparrows finally gone, the swallows claimed their old nest and allowed me to clean up the door.
Barn swallows are a worldwide species, nesting on all continents except Antarctica. They probably wouldn’t have been found nesting in town fifty years ago, but they’re adaptable. They once nested on sheltered cliff faces and in the mouths of caves. They readily adopted barns as a preferred nest site when they appeared about 150 years ago. Barns have nearly disappeared and the swallows have now adapted to city living.
Barn swallows are one of six species of swallows that nest in Iowa. All six could be seen in a single day right here in Story County if a person was willing to spend part of that day along a river with high-cut banks. That’s where you might encounter a colony of brown-backed bank swallows swooping down across the water from their nesting holes high on a nearly vertical cut bank. Bank swallows have white breasts with a darker band across the front. Careful watching might reveal a swallow or two with a brown breast. Northern rough-winged swallows are less common than their bank swallow cousins, but also nest in holes in vertical banks.
People who care for bluebird boxes are probably familiar with the iridescent green-backed tree swallows that sometimes nest in bluebird boxes. Tree swallows are the first of the swallows to return in the spring, and sometimes get caught in late snow storms so they don’t always survive. I often find a few dead tree swallows in bird boxes as I prepare them for another nesting season. Their numbers have actually increased in recent years, though.
There weren’t any cliff swallows around Story County when I was growing up that I can remember. As their name suggests, they prefer sheltered cliff faces as a site to build their gourd-shaped mud bottle nests. Colored similarly to barn swallows, but without the long forked tail, they often nest in huge colonies. As old iron truss bridges have been replaced by more modern stressed concrete beam bridges, Cliff Swallows have moved in to claim the new nesting habitat we have made for them. Several of the newer bridges across the Skunk River support colonies of them now.
The last and largest of our local swallows is the purple martin. Just about every town once had several colonies, and lots of farms had had them, too, nesting in man-made apartment houses mounted on tall poles placed especially for their use. Their happy chatter and graceful flight were part of every summer day when I was growing up, but something has happened in the last 50 years. Martins are no longer common. Several active colonies still exist around the county, but keeping the houses cleaned and repaired each year is a task that takes more dedication than most people have. Several large colonies and the houses that supported them have disappeared in recent years. English sparrows and starlings compete aggressively for remaining nest boxes and often claim their nests before the martins return. Martins have become a human-dependent species and could fade into memory unless people with patience and dedication are willing to work for them. Once established, martins will return to a colony year after year. Attracting birds to a new nest box may take several years, though, even if it is near water and appropriate open habitat. It helps if an established colony is nearby, too.
Enjoy our swallows. They are all extremely beneficial insect eaters, and they also add beauty, charm and joy to any day they are part of.
(Steve Lekwa is retired director of Story County Conservation. He lives in Nevada.)