One of my favorite times of year is the March/April timeframe when swallows begin returning. These pretty little birds provide us with hours of entertainment with their graceful flight acrobatics as they dart about catching insects. But these birds are not only fun to watch, they also provide us with excellent insect control – one swallow can consume many thousands of insects per day!  In this day and age when we all have concerns about the chemical impacts--as well as cost-cutting concerns--providing habitat for swallows at your horse place is a low-cost, healthy alternative to insecticides.

At Sweet Pepper Ranch we're putting up nest boxes for tree swallows.

At Sweet Pepper Ranch we're putting up nest boxes for tree swallows.

There are several types of swallows native to the North America including violet-green swallows, tree swallows, barn Swallows, bank swallows, cliff swallows, rough-winged swallows and purple martins. These voracious insect eaters spend the winter in Central America with spring and summers in North America. They are slender little birds, about five or six inches in length, with pointed wings and tails.  Their flights are very fluid and quick. Colors vary slightly: Violet-greens are white on their cheeks and flanks with greenish-blue wings and backs. Tree swallows have similar markings but with less white on their faces. The throat and undersides of barn swallows are reddish colored with dark brown wings and backs. Cliff swallows are similarly marked, but duller in color.

Cliff and barn swallows build their own mud nests on the underside of roofs, overhands, bridges, cliffs and in barns. (If these little guys have nested somewhere where their droppings are making things messy, try placing a board under their nest to catch droppings, or put newspaper on the floor below. Violet-green and tree swallows are much cleaner than cliff and barn swallows.) Violet-greens and tree swallows nest in already created holes and crevices such as those in dead trees and snags, but due to the forestry practice of removing standing dead trees, nesting sites for these birds have been reduced and their populations have been impacted. Fortunately, both tree and violet-green swallows will use nest boxes. By putting up nest boxes, you can help increase the swallow population and reduce your insect population at the same time!  Breeding activity begins about early May, so get your boxes up before then.

Nest boxes for violet-greens and tree swallows are easy to build or buy and these birds are easily attracted to them. Nesting boxes must be specific to the type of swallows in your area. Poorly made boxes encourage non-native species, such as starlings, to move in which can out-compete swallows and other natives. To purchase or build the right nest box for the swallows in your area contact your local Audubon chapter or birding organization for advice on the types and sources of nesting boxes. Wild bird stores also have nest boxes and good resource information. Just be very sure to get the right nest box for your location and for the type of bird you want to attract. 

We also like to help the swallows by collecting horse hair and feathers then setting those materials out to aid in nest building.

We also like to help the swallows by collecting horse hair and feathers then setting those materials out to aid in nest building.

At Sweet Pepper Ranch we’ve been putting up nest boxes for tree swallows, which spend summers in Idaho’s Treasure Valley. We also like to help the swallows gather their nesting materials by collecting horse hair and feathers and setting them out in tufts. In April and May when swallows begin nesting in your area, you can watch them swoop down and snatch up the hair for nesting material. Each female swallow will lay about four to six eggs and will incubate them for about two weeks.  Both the male and female care for the young, which fledge in 16-24 days. 

As land becomes more developed and forestry practices remove the dead trees that once provided nesting places, the natural open space that horse places offer can be an important haven for birds like swallows. By providing them with nest boxes, you can help their populations increase and make a huge dent in the numbers of insects around your property this summer. So here’s to a less buggy summer ahead!

Alayne