- Size: stocky, 5 ¾” long, 12-14” wingspan.
- Color: males with blue-green iridescent plumage on the back, white feathers on the chest and belly; females and chicks with brownish black on the back and white feathers underside.
- Habitat: open areas and woodland edges frequently near water; nest in tree cavities and nest boxes.
- When and where to observe: throughout the area in appropriate habitat from spring through late summer. West Pond trail in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is a particularly good location.
Tree Swallows are like miniature dive bombers – buzzing about, narrowly missing trees and birdwatchers’ heads, deftly landing on nest boxes. Of all the birds, I think they make flight look the most fun.
But it’s not all fun and games for the Tree Swallow — no, that flight is focused around food and courtship. During summer months, these stocky, pint-sized birds, measuring 5 ¾” long with a 14 ½” catch insects on the fly at low altitudes, making it easy to watch their flight. Come winter, their diet switches to waxy berries found in southern areas.
In courtship, males display moves that would make stunt pilots envious, just to attract the attention of females. Making them even more eye-catching is the males’ stunning, blue-green, iridescent plumage on their backs, set against white feathers on the chest and belly. (Females have the same white undersides, but are brownish black on the back.) The only visual characteristic of this bird that could be considered “plain” is their tail, which lacks the forked outline seen on other swallow species.
Tree Swallows are found in the New York City region from spring to early fall, where they breed in open areas or woodland edges, frequently near water, sometimes forming loose nesting colonies. Tree cavities are the traditional nest choice, but they readily take to nest boxes.
Both males and females raise one brood of 4-6 white eggs. They are usually monogamous but occasionally mate with others if ample food is available. Females incubate eggs for 13-16 days. Chicks are altricial, dependent on parents for food and warmth. In 16-24 days, chicks fledge and take on coloring similar to adult females.
Watching Tree Swallows dive through the air with their clear, high “twit-weet” calls in spring is just as much fun as watching them form large flocks in late summer, changing their tune to “tzeev” hisses as they prepare to migrate south as far as Central America.
Populations are stable though Tree Swallows still fall victim of the usual foe: habitat destruction. Help offset such loss by erecting nest boxes with appropriately sized holes to deter house sparrows from taking over the new home (click here for some bird house plans).
Though you can watch these stunt pilots at several locations in the region, put the West Pond trail at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge at the top of the list for a great aeronautics show!
- All About Birds: Tree Swallow by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, accessed on 1/16/09 at: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Tree_Swallow_dtl.html.
- The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye, published 1988 by Simon and Schuster.
- The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior edited by Chris Elphick, John B. Dunning, Jr., and David Allen Sibley, published 2001 by Chanticleer Press.
- The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley, published 2000 by Chanticleer Press.
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