Violet-green swallows: an encounter with a sweet little bird

You know, if you asked me to paint my house a beautiful colour, violet-green isn’t really a combo that would come to mind. It sounds hideous, actually. And yet one of the most beautiful birds of our western skies is gifted with exactly those shades, and my god they’re pretty.

Meet the violet-green swallow.

More green than violet here; in other light, they’re more violet than green. Photos by Tom Ediger.

This is a bird that is dear to our hearts, Tom and I. It’s our local swallow on our island, and not long after we moved here we spotted them, early in spring, swooping down to check our place for nesting sites.

Nest box drama

They started hovering over the spot where the timbers meet at the apex of our little a-frame house, and so we set to work building a nest box and situating it not far from there. Alas, it clearly wasn’t right. The next year Tom did more research, built the perfect box and placed it in the perfect locale, and bingo. We were graced with a pair of these elegant and energetic birds, building a nest before our eyes. It was magical… until the house wrens arrived. That was the end of that; the gentle swallows were no match for the aggression of a male house wren who destroyed their nest, built his own, and couldn’t be bothered to occupy it. House wrens are assholes.

violet green swallow in flight
Leaving the nest box.

We still see violet-green swallows each spring and summer, and we still take time to stop and watch them. They’re fascinating.

Western birds

Violet-green swallows are a strictly western bird; they’re pretty much replaced by tree swallows east of the 100th meridian or so. In Vancouver, where we used to live, the two species seem to have no trouble hanging out side by side; here we almost never see tree swallows. The two species have a lot in common and share a common ancestor in the not-too-distant past.

tree swallow at nest box
This is a tree swallow—different colour, different pattern of white on the face.

Like tree swallows, they have a surprisingly fluid family structure. They nest in pairs, and those pairs sometimes aggregate into colonies, depending on how many nest holes are available to them. They tend to occupy woodpecker holes, and areas with a lot of old snags, perhaps old burn areas, are a big hit with them.

They are dedicated parents, both male and female, and one observer even recorded pairs of violet-green swallows occupying western bluebird nests—not in an attempt to roust them from the nest, but rather as co-parents. The swallows defended the bluebirds’ nests when predators came along, carried their babies’ fecal sacs away, and appeared to gather food to feed the bluebird babies (the observer couldn’t actually tell if feeding was happening without a camera inside the nest, and this was in the 1980s.) It’s a pretty interesting case of what looks like really altruistic behaviour—what would the swallows gain by this?

Swallows swinging

When making babies of their own, violet-greens, like tree swallows, tend to hedge their genetic bets. By that I mean they screw around a fair bit. They may pair up monogamously, but both male and female solicit copulations from outside the pair, and any given nest is likely to contain a baby not fathered by the male of the family.

violet-green swallow up close
Such an innocent face.

By day, they spend their time high in the skies, often flocking with swifts, purple martins, and other swallow species. They eat a lot of true bugs, beetles, and flies—including mosquitoes. Even on days where they are working far, far overhead (and I’m amazed how high they fly; they’ll go wherever the wind takes the bugs) you can still hear their strange call—not as liquid or melodious as a tree swallows, but distinctive enough to identify them by ear.

Making friends with swallows

If you’re keen on attracting these beautiful, gentle birds to your property, a nest box might be the way to go; they won’t come to a bird feeder and I’ve never seen them at a bird bath. Be sure to watch out for house sparrows and starlings taking over the nest boxes (and those pissy house wrens, though at least they are native birds.)

Or simply find a local field or wetland on a warm day, and listen for their loud, slightly metallic call. Train your binoculars on them, and wait to be rewarded by the sight of the sunlight bouncing off of those remarkable violet-green backs. They’re really a wonder.

Let me brighten your Friday.

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