Many backyard bird watchers agree that spring really begins when the swallows return! A northwestern favorite is the Violet-green Swallow, a summer resident that can be coaxed to nest in our backyards.
Photograph (C) 2009 Rick Brumble
The flight of the swallows is not only graceful, it is economical. Swallows use only half the energy of similar-sized birds in flight. They can feed, drink and even bathe on the wing.
A white rump patch and white encircling the eye are distinctive marks of the Violet-green, helping to distinguish it from the Tree Swallow. Its back and crown appear dark like the wings and tail but, seen closely, are a beautiful, velvety, purple and green. Another key to identification is the underpart – white for the Violet-green and Tree Swallows and rufous for the Barn Swallow. The tails of the Violet-green and Tree Swallows are not nearly as forked as that of the Barn Swallow.
Violet-green Swallows leave their winter range in Central America in early March and are common in our area by April. Some swallows are more common around water, but Violet-greens can be found anywhere there are plenty of insects.
These birds prefer old woodpecker holes and natural tree cavities for their nest sites. With increased logging and removal of standing dead timber, there are fewer natural nest sites available. They can be encouraged to nest in your backyard by mounting one or more nest boxes on a post or dead tree 10 to 15 feet high. Watch to discourage House Sparrows from taking over the nest boxes, though! Inside the bird house, these birds will construct a nest of grass and weed stems lined with feathers. Females lay 4 to 6 white eggs and incubate them for 13 to 14 days. The young fledge in 16 to 24 days, and join with adults to catch insects on the wing and entertain us with their aerial acrobatics!
Like many swallows, Violet-greens live in colonies. By feeding communally these birds can more readily defend themselves from hawks. As autumn approaches, these birds will prepare to leave us for warmer climates. A familiar September sight are Violet-green Swallows perching in long rows on telephone wires, preparing for their long journey south.