A question about swallows

Today I received an interesting question about swallows  from a reader:

I have a few questions about swallows and I was wondering if you could help me. I live right on the beach, at Dolphin Sands, Swansea, Tasmania. With Freycinet National Park and the Great Oyster Bay sanctuary we have the perfect place for wildlife. I was told that swallows always appear on the first few days of Spring, or pretty close to it and that they migrate as far as Siberia. Is this true? Also I was told that a pair will always return to the same nesting spot they had the previous year and that they mate for life. Is any of this true? I’d like to find out much more about these lovely little birds. Can you offer any suggestions?

Thanks

Bronwyn

Welcome Swallow

Welcome Swallow

This is my answer to Bronwyn:

It depends on which species of swallow you are seeing.

There are six species of swallows and martins to be found in Australia.

Only two are generally present in Tasmania.

The Welcome Swallow is common throughout eastern and southern Australia, including Tasmania. They have a rusty brown throat and on the forehead. In flight the tail is deeply forked. They normally migrate north in autumn and winter to SE Queensland (wise birds). They return to breed in the spring and early summer. They make a bowl shaped mud nest about the size of a soup bowl, often under wharves, bridges, verandas, eaves and other made structures, including boats. (They often use house boats on the River Murray here in SA)

The other species found in Tasmania is the Tree Martin. They are smaller than the Welcome Swallow, with greyish wings and back and whitish underparts. The tail is only slightly forked. They tend to nest in tree hollows and sometimes holes in cliffs or even holes and ventilators in buildings. They migrate north in Feb-May and return July to October. They are found in Indonesia and PNG as well.

None of our swallows migrate to Siberia. On the other hand, many of our small wading birds do go to the Arctic Circle to breed during our winter. That’s a topic far too big for this article.

Welcome Swallows tend to be monogamous except there is some evidence in Tasmania that they may change partners from year to year (and even within one breeding season). Nest sites are often reused, being refurbished from one breeding attempt to the next. Pair bonding in Tree Martins is not known. In fact there are few detailed breeding studies of this species.

Other readers from Tasmania might care to add further comments. I’ve never been birding in Tasmania so I’ve had to rely entirely on my reference library for this information.

Reference:

Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds volume 7, Melbourne, Oxford University Press.

 

52 Responses to “A question about swallows”

  1. John Tongue says:

    Hi Trevor (and Bronwyn),
    I’d reckon your answer to BRonwyn is pretty much spot-on, Trevor. There are only the two species in Tassie – though people very occasionally report Fairy MArtins as well. There is a high degree if nest site fidelity, though I’d have to rely on the scientific reports to about the pair bond fidelity. Once a pair nests at a site, there is every chance birds will continue to nest there, year after year, unless the home owner continues to knock the nest down, as some do. I’d prefer to put up with a bit of mess for a short while! Then, as to migration, virtually all the birds do move to warmer climes for the winter (as Trevor says, smart birds). I’m not certain where they do go. However, not all leave. Some individuals ‘overwinter’, and they say this is mostly first-year juveniles (maybe a bit ‘chicken’ about crossing BAss Strait??). These mostly hang around in ‘different’ areas to where they were bred, sometimes in large groups (juvenile gangs?), so it seems to the home-owners, boat-owners, etc. that they all come and go seasonally. They are fairly regular in their movements, but people do often keep detailed records of last departure and first arrival dates for these delightful little birds. Hope this has been helpful.

    • Jan says:

      We have swallows best in our alfresco and make a big mess. They build their. Eats in early spring and leave at the start of summer. However I’ve noticed that two swallows have returned this week ( April) and there are feathers left every morning. They look like juveniles but I’m not sure. Would they be here to mate? I am curious
      Jan

  2. Marj Kibby says:

    Some of the mythology around swallows is based on the swallows of San Juan Capistrano in California – they apparently return regularly on the 18th March.

  3. Trevor says:

    Thanks for that comment Marj. I hadn’t heard of this special event and found the following references to it:

    http://www.sjc.net/swallows/

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mission_San_Juan_Capistrano#The_Return_of_the_Swallows_Celebration

  4. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the confirmation John. Most of my information was gleaned from HANZAB so I assumed it was reasonably accurate (LOL). I’ll pass this on to Bronwyn.

  5. John Tongue says:

    Mmmmm…. HANZAB….. One day, I might be able to afford a second-hand copy??

  6. Trevor says:

    Yes – well – good luck with that.

    I’ve never seen any of the volumes available second hand. I check for bird books on Ebay (and elsewhere) on a reasonably regular basis and none of this series ever appears. They are expensive – I have only managed to acquire volumes 4 – 7 as I couldn’t afford any more. Those I have stretched the budget severely.

    Most of the questions I get on this blog are covered by those volumes anyway (parrots through to all passerines). I’ve actually been quite satisfied as to how many times I’ve used them answering readers’ questions. I’ve also learned a lot myself.

    They are serious reference books and certainly not light bedtime reading. All go to well over 1000 pages of very fine print.

  7. Len Crawley says:

    Swallows, beautiful birds. Insect eaters, but too small for blowflies wasps etc. If they didn’t crap below their nests I would welcome them. I have had to remove four nests over a stairway at the motel where I work, and hang plastic bags, cd’s etc to stop them restarting. Is there any other way to deter them from an area? I want them to flourish, but not where I have to clean up after them.

  8. Trevor says:

    HI there Len,

    Thanks for stopping by. Swallows are delightful little birds but I also realise that they can create quite a mess when they are nesting. is there any way that the spot where they are nesting can be blocked off so they have nowhere to start a nest?

  9. Bill says:

    Some people build a little “platform” and place it just below the nest to catch all the mess. That gives our little feathered friends somewhere to dump their garbage without us getting annoyed at them.
    Think of a very short shelf and you’ll get the idea of the type of platform.

  10. Bill says:

    I have some swallows that built a nest in my shed. I just love those little fellas. I showed the babies to my daughter when they were about the size of the tip of my finger with no feathers or fur. Just bald little bellies… 3 weeks later they were ready to fly! Amazing! I was astonished. Last night they were diving and “playing chicken” by flying within a couple of feet of my face before veering off and squeaking and zooming all around the house before the next “dive bombing run”. They are real little thrill seekers who seem to like to interact with us.

  11. Shirley says:

    We have lived in our home for 24 years and in that time our swallows have only left us 1 winter. They have two nests which are both used at different times. We have made platforms as they live in our carport and do make a mess. I am wondering why they do not fly for winter, not that I really want them to as they have become a part of our family.

  12. Trevor says:

    Thanks for your comments Shirley.

    In which part of Australia are you living? Bird migration patterns differ widely in different parts of the country.

  13. Shirley says:

    We live on the North West coast of Tasmania, it can get quite cold here, especially where we are. Some nights it can get down to -1 to -3 and we can have a lot of frosts. Hoping this will give you more of an idea why our babies (as I call them) stay with us all year. Hope to hear from you.

  14. shirley says:

    Not realy up with this computer thing, wondering because I ticked notify me of follow comments via e-mail is the reason I have not received an answer on the comupter sight to my last e-mail. But looking at your sights you must be busy

  15. Trevor says:

    Sorry for not replying sooner, Shirley. I’ve not been well recently but I’m better now.

    I’m also sorry that I don’t really know the answer to your question except in a general sense. Generally with species of birds that migrate there can be a few individuals or small groups that do not migrate. It’s called “over wintering”. Why they choose to do that is not certain. Perhaps they have all the food and shelter that they need and see no urgency or need to fly elsewhere. Whatever the reason, I’m sure you will enjoy the birds living close to you.

  16. shirley says:

    Thankyou Trevor for your comments, we certainly love our swallows as do the granchildren. Our pair have just had their 3rd sitting for summer and the grandchildren love to sit at the window and watch mum and dad feed them and then teach them to fly. We do get bombarded quite a lot when their babies are there, hopefully they will stay with us as we were told if you have swallows you have a happy home.

  17. graeme says:

    our beautiful young swallows are not here tonight, last day of summer, we are in southern nsw. Australia. we are going to miss their cheekiness,

  18. Janet says:

    I live in N W New South Wales and have a pair of bonding swallows that are very active just now. Could they be breeding at this time of year?

  19. Trevor says:

    Hi Janet,

    It’s a bit early – normal breeding season is August to December – but our seasons and rainfall have been so out of the normal range over wide parts of Australia over the last 12 months, even the birds can be excused for not following their normal patterns.

    Will be interesting to see if they actually do nest.

    • shirley says:

      Hi Trevor, have been in contact with you a while ago about our swallows staying with us here in wynyard tasmania. this year they have stayed with us but now we did have three nests in our carport and they have refurbished all three but no babies. I did eventually pull down one of the nests they were sitting on then abandoned and there were no eggs. since then they have tried the other 2 nests refurbishing both, but no babies. they are now building a new nest where the one was that I pulled down. As I said in my last letters we usually have at least 3 settings a year and usually by this time of the year we have had at least 1-2 settings. Can you give me an answer to why this has happened.

      • Trevor says:

        That is rather odd – has the weather been any different this year? Perhaps the food source has been depleted in some way making breeding a poor option. Another possibility is that the original breeding birds have died and this recent attempt is a young inexperienced pair still learning what to do.

  20. Shirley says:

    Thankyou Trevor for your reply. Our weather pattern has’nt been much different to previous years. I would say it’s possibley your second suggestion of them being young ones, hopefully something might happen soon.

  21. Phil says:

    HI, thanks for the information about the Swallows that have made nests in our car port for the first time this year. we have two families one with three babies and the other not sure at this stage. We have not had them here before this summer, yet the carport has been there for over 20 years. They are delightful but do make a mess on the car…..but they may stay for the time being, i will just have to keep cleaning the car.

  22. Leonie Haas says:

    Hi we are on our boat enjoying a holiday. Four days ago we left a marina near Yeppoon on Qld’s Sth east coast where we had stayed for 1 night. We noticed a pair of welcome swallows with us there. We are now 50km south and the pair are still with us. They started a mud nest under our BBQ seat but have abandoned it. We cannot find a new one. We leave here tomorrow to head east out to the reef. I wonder if they will follow us out there and if it is normal behaviour for them to follow a structure out to sea?
    Thanks.

  23. Bill says:

    Hi , we are in the N / East corner of Tas amd have swallows building above the front door. there are 3 birds building the nest, when we were living down south we used to have a nesting pair came back every year for about 7 yrs and used to repair and use the old nest under the house. they often used to raise 3 young in a season.
    not to my Q? here there are 3 birds building this nest, is this common? is it a male and 2 females ?
    Thanks

  24. We have swallows that return every spring and have done for about 5 years now. We assume their offspring are the extras that now come too, as from the first pair we had we now have about 5 pairs nesting around our sheds. They sometimes use old nests refurbished, or build ones close the location of the previous years one. We are in northern Tasmania.

  25. John Alford says:

    Saw the first swallow of ‘Spring’ today, July 15 in Lilydale, north-east Tasmania where we have lived and watched the birds for over 20 years. Lilydale typically has a fairly cold and wet winter, although things have changed in recent years. Last year, the first swallow was seen oveflying our place on July 21, my father’s birthday. We used to talk about the first swallow of Spring but this is getting ridiculous!

  26. Luke says:

    Hey I have 2 swallows pirched on the rafters on my balcony, no nest there. they have a nest on the other side of the house but they don’t use it. I want to put a bird house there, will they use it and is there something I can put in it to attract them to it

  27. claudia durach says:

    I have a pair of swallows that come every August and leave in April. At the moment (October) they have 4 eggs in the nest. They do not look like the “welcome swallow”, but have red on their chest and no rust on their heads. Is this a different bird? I live in SA.

    • Trevor says:

      Hi Claudia,

      This is quite puzzling. I am not sure what you are seeing. It sounds like you know what a Welcome Swallow looks like. They always have that rusty reddish colour on both the chest and head (except for juveniles where it can be dull and hard to see).

      I can’t think of anything else it could be. Even the Barn Swallow has similar markings plus a black chest band, but they are extremely rare in SA. Would you be able to take a photo and send it to me via the contact form (see the top of this page)?

      Another helpful photo would be of the nest, with a brief description of its location.

      Thanks.

  28. Pete Ward says:

    A pair of welcome swallows building a nest in our shed in Queensland,quality isn’t great but you get the idea, sorry about the chook noise midway through
    Pete
    http://youtu.be/Kj6JU_TxTkE

  29. Tony says:

    Hi Trevor,

    Just stumbled across your website whilst trying to identify a number of Swallows and Martins I have seen over the last couple of days in Rottnest Island off Fremantle. I am from Wales in the UK and have a big interest in Swallows, Martins and Swifts all of which nest at my place back home I’ve got observation boxes for the Swifts. Anyway I think there were two types of Swallows on the Island at least one seemed much larger than the other and at least one type of Martin which I am assuming is a Tree Martin and I think one of the Swallows is the Welcome Swallow any ideas on the other which appears to be bigger or am I looking at juveniles and adults? The bigger ones appeared to be feeding over the dried up lakes in the centre of the island. At least one Swallow was using a nest on top of a light fitting in the shopping area. The Tree Martins are similar to the House Martins I have on the house see https://youtu.be/2J7vA2aMCRA any ideas on the bigger Swallow?
    Kindest regards
    Tony
    West Wales

    • Trevor says:

      Hi Tony,

      Thanks for stopping by. You are almost certainly seeing Welcome Swallows – they have a deep forked tail – as they are by far the most common one in Australia. The martin is either a Tree Martin or a Fairy Martin – probably a Tree Martin.

      As for the larger birds, I would be fairly confident that they are Fork-tailed swifts – nearly twice the size and much faster.

  30. Tony says:

    Thank you for that information Trevor not sure about the Swift as they were landing on the dried lake bed perhaps adults and juveniles of the same species the Welcome Swallow they just seemed so much bigger

    Kindest regards
    Tony
    West Wales

  31. Bridget Barton says:

    I’ve just had a flock of about 25 welcome swallows use my garden and the adjoining park as an area for flying mania. They went round and round in tight circles at great speed, so fast that it took me a while to see what they were. They kept up this mania for 10 minutes and then disappeared. I am not used to seeing these gorgeous birds around my home. Were they getting fit before flying north to warmer climes? Our night temperature is around 10 degrees now. I live in Wagga Wagga,NSW. Have you any idea what they were up to. There was no sign of insects in the air so there was no feeding going on.

    • Hi Bridget,

      Thanks for visiting my site and for leaving a comment. That is an interesting observation, but relatively common for Welcome Swallows. Large flocks like this are common and they were possibly feeding even if you couldn’t see the insects. If they weren’t feeding, I am not sure what they were up to. Your idea of them preparing to migrate north has some merit, too, because some Welcome Swallows do migrate at this time of the year.

  32. Cheryl says:

    Hi everyone,

    We have a heap of Welcome Swallows around where I work (out in the bush) and one of them appeared to have a hurt wing (perhaps injured by a magpie- not sure). My colleagues put the little guy in a box and I am looking after him for the weekend since where I work there are feral cats etc that could attack him.

    He isn’t flying but he is flapping about on the floor some. I have tried to feed him melee worms from the pet shop, since I read that these guys like their insects. Though I’m not too sure if he’s eaten any.

    I’m not sure if he is injured or if he’s just a baby, he’s still pretty fluffy on his belly but I’m not sure if that’s how he’s meant to be as an adult.

    If anyone has some advice as to how to figure out if he’s a baby or injured that would be awesome, I would love to be able to release him back where I found him but don’t want to do so if he’s going to get eaten by a cat if he can’t fly.

  33. Linda says:

    Hi Trevor,
    We’ve had a house down at Cape Paterson for 20 years now, and have had resident swallows nesting there for the entire time. There have always been three nests, and I know which one they are using each time, going by the mound of droppings on the ground. When we were down there last January 2016, I didn’t see them at all. We’ve been down there two or three times since then (the latest 12th August) and no swallows. The nests have not been used. I’ve always chatted to them when they’ve been on the wire close to the balcony and they’ve been happy to just sit there and listen to me waffle on. In January 2016, I did see hawks flying around very close to our house, so close I saw the underside of one of them from at least two metres away. I really fear they have taken my swallows, but want to think that they died of old age. How long do swallows live?

    • Trevor says:

      Hi Linda,

      Thanks for your comments and your question. Sorry about the delay in replying- I have been in Sydney looking after the grandchildren and didn’t take my reference books with me.

      From what I can gather from my search, Welcome Swallows live for up to about 6 years. This is similar to most of our smaller birds, and is the reason they often have two or three broods per breeding season.

  34. Trevor says:

    For readers of this post, please note a new feature on this blog.

    Go below the comments to sign up for Trevor’s Birding newsletter. I plan to publish a monthly newsletter with news, photos, and features not published on my blog.

    It’s FREE.

    • Ann Purdy says:

      Hi All, We have had the most delightful adventures with Welcome Swallows since Sept 16 on going today 25/02/17. A pair started visiting my clothes line in September, hung around a lot & made their way to our back porch just flying in & out at their leisure, wonderful to watch & they were greatly welcomed by us. They started constructing a mud nest, almost finished & most of it fell down (first timers we thought) they started building again with different colour mud this time & it held together beautifully. We watched as the female increased in size & could see her transform into a heavily pregnant bird, then on the 26th November she was in the nest being fed by the male & would take it in turns with him to turn the eggs & guard the nest while mum had a flying feed for herself. Then on the 17th of December mum took some egg shell from the nest, feeding became manic & more shell was moved out on a daily basis & feeding was at fever pitch, by Christmas day 4 little heads were jostling for the first feeds of the day, the first born was a bully & grew much bigger than the other three, it also left the nest 1st & was never seen again ever.
      The other 3 stayed in the nest & started their flying practice with mum & dad & I believe other family member’s that had all gathered on the clothes line we think for the sole purpose of protection on the young ones maiden flight outside of the porch area, Mum Dad & the 3 young one’s would fly off every day for a short while then return each day at 2pm & fly about the porch area & return to the nest to sleep. Young all left mid January but Mum & Dad still here loving life, I too am fearful for their safety & we have chicken hawks flying around close & funny thing is when I hear the Hawks chattering in the distance I say a little pray to keep the Swallows safe, then low & behold they fly back into the porch & announce themselves just as if they had heard my little plea for their safety, they are so beautiful & they have become part of our family too & we have been blessed by them, I just place newspaper under their nest, which catches droppings & change it daily, they have a great aim or else I can boast that they are toilet trained, They aren’t messy at all. We live in the Central Highlands of Tasmania.Happy Birding.How do I post Pic’s?

      • Trevor says:

        Hi Ann,

        Thank you for your lovely encounter with these delightful birds. Visitors are not able to post photos – I use all of my own photos. You could send them to me via email by using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. I will then decide if I can use them here – with your permission, of course.

  35. Melita says:

    Hi,
    I’m in devonport Tasmania.
    I’ve recently had a pair of ‘welcome swallows’ nest at my front door. They had three babies and they all have moved on now bar one. One swallow still remains in the nest and I’m a little worried about him/her.
    It’s nearly April and I’m not sure but… isn’t he supposed to migrate? Has he missed his opportunity because there isn’t going to be much food around for this little guy if he stays any longer.
    Is it common for them to stay in the nest by themselves? Can he survive? Is there still time for him to migrate?

    • Trevor says:

      Hi Melita,
      Thanks for stopping by and for leaving a question. I am not sure about the weather recently in Tasmania, but until a few days ago we have had abnormally hot weather here in South Australia. I guess the bird was a little confused if you’ve had mild or warm weather too. It is still not too late for it to migrate, but he probably heard about the horrible Queensland weather over recent days and decided to stay over. On the other hand, as John says in the very first comment, some Welcome Swallows do over-winter in Tasmania, usually juveniles in their first year. It will be interesting to see what it does; to go or not to go!

  36. gillian davies says:

    we have allowed our swallows to nest here in our suburban house eaves for a few years and this last season we have about ten nests — my husband has not managed to get them down in time –when do you think they will abandon them for this season so that we can start the legally accepted demolition process — the mess is really awful now – allover our black rubber tube-sections for the pool solar heating and allover our garden patio and pool.. they have been returning for many years so we will have trouble keeping them away for future years too .. we are eager to start the cleaning up process now.. presumably we will have to look for the signs of no activity — do you think this will be at end of spring or will it go Ito the summer?? thanks in advance (Sunshine Coast Qld)

    • Trevor says:

      The breeding season for Welcome swallows can last from August to February. Like many of our small bird species, they can have multiple clutches in a season. The incubation period is about 21 days and the young will fly off after another 21 days or so. The best time to remove the mess would be immediately after the young fly. Is there some way you could construct a temporary structure which would prevent or discourage further nesting attempts?

  37. Cath says:

    Hi:) can you tell me if Welcome Swallows are protected in Victoria & Commonwealth? Some id.ots wanting to build a Freeway possibly through /near parkland (green space) where they have been sighted. Are lorikeets & grass parrots protected? Many thanks for your help.

    • Trevor says:

      Hi Cath, All Australian native birds are protected by law is my understanding. This would mean that all swallows, lorikeets and parrots are protected. Introduced species such as starlings, Common Mynas (not the Noisy Miner which is a native honeyeater), and sparrows are not protected. Contact your local National Parks rangers for further information, or the relevant Department of Environment for advice (their website may have more details).

  38. Lisa Powell says:

    What a great thread! Lots of useful information.

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