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Blane Klemek: Let's hear it for those beautiful, swooping swallows

Birds of beauty and grace, swallows are designed for capturing flying insects in the air while they themselves careen through the sky with the greatest of ease.

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Barn Swallow . This barn swallow was photographed in Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota. (Flickr photo by Danielle Brigida/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Midwest Region)

Songbirds galore are singing and courting everywhere in the Northland.

Many are actively building nests or are already nesting and raising offspring. Here at my home, robins are nesting in the spruce trees next to the house, male house wrens are stuffing bird houses full of sticks, and, for the first time ever, a pair of barn swallows are building a nest underneath the roof overhang above the front steps.

Swallows are among a group of birds that I enjoy having around. Six of the nine North American species of swallows migrate to Minnesota to breed and nest every spring. And all of them share similar physical characteristics with one another, but each is quite unique in their own right.

  • RELATED: Listen to swallows here , courtesy of the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds species guide

The purple martin is that condo-loving, socialite of the swallow world. Here’s a swallow that has come to rely almost exclusively on birdhouses for nesting (although none have adopted my condo yet!). Like some of the other swallow species, purple martins are cavity nesters. Yet perhaps due in part to loss of their preferred nesting habitat, these colonial nesting birds somehow adapted to nesting inside of artificial nesting structures.

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Purple Martin This pair of purple martins was spotted at Prairie Wetlands Learning Center in Fergus Falls just 72 hours after their return spring return (Flickr photo by David Ellis/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Midwest Region)


Two other Minnesota swallows are referred to as “brown” swallows: the northern rough-winged swallow and the bank swallow. Although having never observed the rough-winged swallow, I’m very familiar with bank swallows from time spent canoeing on the Crow Wing River. These swallows are common sights along the sandy, high banks that occur alongside the river.

Both species nest in holes they excavate themselves in sandbanks. Obviously, the sand of choice has to be of the right consistency, otherwise their burrows would collapse. Bank swallows, the more sociable of the two swallows, are colonial nesters, whereas northern rough-winged swallows nest singly.

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Cliff swallows at Morris Wetland Management District. (Flickr photo by Alex Galt/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Midwest Region)

Another common swallow that nests in Minnesota each season, frequently near water and often underneath bridges, inside large culverts, or beneath the eaves of buildings, is the attractive cliff swallow. Here’s a species of swallow that builds perhaps the most unique of the nest-building swallows.

Shaped like gourds, cliff swallow nests are constructed entirely out of mud pellets composed of sand, silt and clay. From 1,000 to 1,400 mud pellets, which also represents that many mouthfuls of mud and trips to the nest! Building one of these nests takes one to two weeks.

The last two swallows I am forever grateful for, because of their abundance and eagerness to use bird houses and other human-made structures, are the ubiquitous and cheery tree swallow and the chirpy, acrobatic barn swallow.


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This tree swallow was spotted keeping watch on a stop sign post. (Flickr photo by Courtney Celley/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Midwest Region)

Tree swallows are stocky, broad-winged swallows with very white breasts, giving them an almost penguin-like appearance when perched with folded wings. Widespread amongst all swallows, tree swallows, like purple martins, choose tree cavities and birdhouses for nesting and raising offspring. In fact, this year a pair of tree swallows has taken up residence in one of the apartments of my once-vacant 12-hole purple martin house.

Lastly, as already mentioned, is the sweet and beautifully colored barn swallow that I came to know so well as a young boy on the farm. This orange-breasted swallow with the deeply forked tail, is an elegant looking bird, to be sure.

Constructing its half-cup nest of mud and organic materials underneath the eaves of buildings or onto rafters or floor joists inside of buildings, the tolerant barn swallow seems unaffected by human activity. Even so, don’t expect a barn swallow to sit idly by while you observe them caring for nestlings or guarding their nest. They’ll swoop and dive and chirp wildly at you in their unending attempts to drive you away. Excellent parents, barn swallows will frequently raise two broods each season.

Swallows are birds designed for capturing flying insects in the air while they themselves careen through the sky with no apparent effort. Birds of beauty and grace, swallows are birds to appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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A young barn swallow in its nest. (Flickr photo by Courtney Celley/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Midwest Region)

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