Bird Identification – The Swallows

If you were a bird, could you think of any way of earning a living more delightful than sailing about in the air all day, playing cross-tag on the wing with your companions, skimming low across the meadows, ponds and marshes, or rising high above them and darting hither and thither wherever you pleased, without knowing what it means to feel tired? Swallows are as much in their element when in the air as fish are in water; but don’t imagine they are there simply for fun. Their long, blade-like wings, which cut the air with such easy, but powerful strokes, propel them enormous distances before they have collected enough mosquitoes, gnats and other little gauzy-winged insects to supply such great energy and satisfy their hunger. With mouth widely gaping, leaving an opening in the front of their broad heads that stretches from ear to ear, they get a tremendous draught down their little throats, but they gather in a dinner piece-meal just as the chimney swift, whip-poor-will and night-hawk do. Viscid saliva in the bird’s mouth glues the little victims as fast as if they were caught on sticky fly-paper; then, when enough have been trapped to make a pellet, the swallow swallows them in a ball, although one swallow does not make a dinner, any more than one swallow makes a summer.

These sociable birds delight to live in companies, even during the nesting season when most feathered couples, however glad to flock at other times, prefer to be alone. As soon as the young birds can take wing, one family party unites with another, one colony with another, until often enormous numbers assemble in the marshes in August and September. You see them strung like beads along the telegraph wires, perched on the fences, circling over the meadows and ponds, zigzagging across the sky. Millions of swallows have been noted in some of these autumnal flocks. Usually they go to sleep among the reeds and grasses in a favourite marsh where the bands return year after year; but some prefer trees. Comparatively little perching is done except at night, for swallows’ feet are very small and weak.

At sunrise, the birds scatter in small bands to pick up on the wing the long continued meal, which lasts till late in the afternoon. Those who have gone too far abroad and must travel back to the roost after sundown shoot across the sky with incredible swiftness lest darkness overtake them. Relying upon their speed of flight to carry them beyond the reach of enemies, they migrate boldly by daylight instead of at night as the timid little vireos and warblers do. During every day the swallows are with us they must consume billions and trillions of blood-sucking insects that would pester other animals beside ourselves. Think of the mosquito bites alone that they prevent! Every one of us is greatly in their debt.

Male and female swallows are dressed so nearly alike that you can scarcely tell one from the other. Both twitter merrily but neither really sings.