The Martins and the Swallows
Nature Bulletin No. 223-A March 26, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
THE MARTINS AND THE SWALLOWS
Each spring for many years a pair of Barn Swallows have returned to a
cup of hardened mud plastered on an overhead beam just inside our
barn door. Once, the nest was knocked down by an overcurious boy,
but the swallows rebuilt it with fresh mud pellets interwoven with
grass -- on the same spot with the same rusty nail as an anchor. From
April until September they elect themselves members of our family,
just as they adopted our predecessors who lived there ever since that
barn was built to stable a team of horses, fifty or more years ago. Since
time immemorial swallows have cast their lot with man and repay his
protection by their cheerful twittering, and by gleaning insects from
his gardens and fields.
All kinds of swallows seem to enjoy flying and spend more time on the
wing than any other birds. They have slender graceful bodies, long
tapered wings for swift flight, and all except one have long forked or
notched tails. Their beaks are short and wide for catching insects on
the wing. The legs are short and the feet are weak. All except one
migrate to far South America for the winter.
Six common kinds nest over most of the United States. The largest is
the Purple Martin of which the male is shining blue-black all over and
the female brownish with a gray throat. Supposedly, they once nested
in hollow trees but, long before the coming of white men, the Indians
made martin nests from empty gourds hung on poles in their gardens
and corn patches. Now, martins nest almost exclusively in specially
built "apartment houses" mounted on poles. They boldly attack crows
and hawks but are often crowded out of their houses by English
sparrows and starlings.
The Tree Swallows nest in tree holes or in ordinary bird boxes,
preferably near marshes and ponds. There they skim the surface for
mosquitoes and other aquatic insects. They occasionally eat seeds and
berries. The head and back of the adults are metallic greenish black,
and the breast pure white. This is the swallow which often lines
telephone wires for miles in late summer before they migrate south.
The Barn Swallow, with it's deeply forked tail, has that well-tailored
look -- a smooth blue serge tail-coat and a reddish brown vest.
Formerly they nested in caverns and under overhanging cliffs, but now
they stick close to man' s barns, bridges, and other buildings. They
boldly "dive bomb" cats, dogs and people who venture near their
young as they teach them to fly and feed on the wing.
The Cliff Swallows are better named Eaves Swallows because,
nowadays, they most commonly build their mud nests in large colonies
under the eaves of buildings. One barn near Deerfield, Wisconsin, has
over two thousand nests under its eaves. This is the swallow with a
square tail. Otherwise it is similar to the barn swallow except that its
forehead is orange instead of white.
The Bank Swallow and the Rough-winged Swallow are similar in
habits and appearance. Both are grayish above but the first has a white
throat and breast crossed by a brownish band, whereas the latter has a
gray breast. They differ from other swallows by nesting in holes which
they dig deep into steep sandy banks.
The cigar-shaped Chimney Swift, remarkable for its speed and agility
in the air, and which glues a nest of twigs on the inside of unused
chimneys, is not a swallow at all, but a relative of the hummingbirds.
The Martins and the Coys were feudin' fightin' boys -- but the martins
and the swallows live in peace .
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Update: June 2012