Tuesday, March 26, 2013


In this era of human domination of the world, a successful animal or plant may be defined as one that has adapted in some way to human presence, even benefits by it.

Cliff Swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) may be one of those animals. They build mud nests that they attach to vertical substrates overhung sufficiently to provide shelter from rain. They were able to evolve this nesting habit because of the widespread abundance of rocky canyons in western North America. Cliff Swallows are still abundant in that habitat.

The species was probably restricted to western canyonlands until barns and bridges built by settlers advancing across the Great Plains a few hundred years ago provided nesting substrates comparable to those provided by nature. The birds took advantage of these newly furnished nest sites and moved eastward, encountering more and more artificial cliffs and canyons as they went. Today they nest through much of the East as well, on buildings but mostly under big bridges across rivers.

Cliff Swallows are among the most social of land birds, with colonies of up to 3,500 pairs reported. Their closely packed nests extend over lengthy sections of cliff walls and can fill up the sides of barns and bridges wherever there is overhead shelter. Because they nest so densely, they are more subject than most birds to ectoparasites, especially swallow bugs and ticks, in their nests. Because of high chick mortality from high densities of these parasites, whole colonies are sometimes abandoned and the birds settle elsewhere.

Their other "enemies" include House Sparrows, which take over Cliff Swallow nests and even kill their young, and automobiles, which take their toll of birds nesting adjacent to roads. Recent research has shown that Cliff Swallows in such situations are evolving shorter wings, making them more maneuverable and less likely to be struck down by a car.

Swallow nests are somewhat messy, because after about a week old, the young defecate off the edge of the nest. A pile of poop can build up rapidly below the nest, sometimes even blocking the entrance! Swallows that nest where people live and work aren't always well loved because of this, and whole colonies are sometimes removed from highway overpasses because of the mess they make. Living around humans brings mixed benefits.

Dennis Paulson

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