Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock


Swallows and swifts.

Drawn by L. A. Fuertes for
General Biology  by J. G. Needham.

The Swallows and the Chimney Swift

Teacher's Story

dropcap image HESE friendly little birds spend their time darting through the air on swift wings, seeking and destroying insects which are foes to us and our various crops. However, it is safe to assume that they are not thinking of us as they skim above our meadows and ponds, hawking our tiny foes; for like most of us, they are simply intent upon getting a living. Would that we might perform this necessary duty as gracefully as they.

In general, the swallows have a long, slender, graceful body, with a long tail which is forked or notched, except in the case of the eave swallow. The beak is short but wide where it joins the head; this enables the bird to open its mouth wide and gives it more scope in the matter of catching insects; the swift flight of the swallows enables them to catch insects on the wing; their legs are short, the feet are weak and fitted for perching; it would be quite impossible for a swallow to walk or hop like a robin or blackbird.

The eave, or cliff, swallows—These swallows build under the eaves of barns or in similar locations. In early times they built against the sides of cliffs; but when man came and built barns, they chose them for their dwelling sites. The nest is made of mud pellets and is somewhat globular in shape, with an entrance at one side. When building on the sides of cliffs or in unprotected portions of a barn, a covered passage is built around the door, which gives the nest the shape of a gourd or retort; but when protected beneath the eaves the birds seem to think this vestibule is unnecessary. The mud nest is warmly lined with feathers and soft materials, and there are often many nests built so closely together that they touch. The eave swallow comes north about May 1st, and soon after that, may be seen along streams or other damp places gathering mud for the nests. It seems necessary for the bird to find clay mud in order to render the nest strong enough to support the eggs and nestlings. The eggs are white, blotched with reddish brown. The parents cling to the edge of the nest when feeding the young. Both the barn and eave swallows are blue above but the eave swallow has the forehead cream white and the rump of pale brick-red, and its tail is square across the end as seen in flight. The barn swallow has a chestnut forehead and its outer tail feathers are long, making a distinct fork during flight, and it is not red upon the rump.


The barn swallow's feather bed.

The barn swallows—These birds choose a barn where there is a hole in the gable or where the doors are kept open all the time. They build upon beams or rafters, making a cup-shaped nest of layers of pellets of mud, with grass between; it is well lined with feathers. The nest is usually the shape of half of a shallow cup which has been cut in two lengthwise, the cut side being plastered against the side of the rafter. Sometimes the nests are more or less supported upon a beam or rafter; the eggs are white and dotted with reddish brown. The barn swallows, aside from their constant twittering, have also a pretty song. Both parents work at building the nest and feeding the young; there are likely to be several pairs nesting in the same building. The parents continue to feed the young long after they have left the nest; often a whole family may be seen sitting on a telegraph wire or wire fence, the parents still feeding the well-grown youngsters. This species comes north in the latter part of April and leaves early in September. It winters as far south as Brazil.

The barn swallow has a distinctly tailor-made appearance; its red-brown vest and iridescent blue coat, with deeply forked "coat tails" give it an elegance of style which no other bird, not even the chic cedar waxwing can emulate.

The Bank Swallow—When we see a sandy bank apparently shot full of holes as by small cannon balls, we may know that we have found a tenement of bank swallows. These birds always choose the perpendicular banks of creeks or of railroad cuts or of sand pits for their nesting sites; they require a soil sufficiently soft to be tunneled by their weak feet, and yet not so loose as to cave in upon the nest. The tunnel may extend from one to four feet horizontally in the bank with just enough diameter to admit the body of the rather small bird. The nest is situated at the extreme end of the tunnel and is lined with soft feathers and grasses.


A bank swallow tenement.

Photo by J. T. Lloyd.

The bank swallows arrive late in April and leave early in September. They may be distinguished from the other species by their grayish color above; the throat and breast are white with a broad, brownish band across the breast; the tail is slightly forked. The rough-winged swallow, which is similar in habits to the bank swallow, may be distinguished from it by its gray breast, which has no dark band.


Bank swallow's nest with earth removed showing the upward direction of the tunnel.

Photo by J. T. Lloyd.

The Tree Swallow—This graceful little bird builds naturally in holes in trees, but readily accepts a box if it is provided. It begins to build soon after it comes north in late April and it is well for us to encourage the tree swallows to live near our houses by building houses for them and driving away the English sparrows. The tree swallows live upon many insects which annoy us and injure our gardens and damage our orchards; they are, therefore, much more desirable neighbors than the English sparrows. The tree swallows congregate in great numbers for the southern migration very early in the season, often in early August. They are likely to congregate in marshes, as are also the other swallows. In color the tree swallow has a green metallic back and head, a pure white breast with no band across it, and these peculiarities distinguish it from all other species.


Tree swallows.

Photo by A. A. Allen.

The Purple Martin—The martin is a larger bird than the largest swallow, being eight inches in length, while the barn swallow does not measure quite seven. The male is shining, steel-blue above and below; the female is brownish above, has a gray throat, brownish breast and is white beneath. The martins originally nested in hollow trees, but for centuries have been cared for by man. The Indians were wont to put out empty gourds for them to nest in; and as soon as America was settled by Europeans, martin boxes were built extensively. But when the English sparrows came, they took possession of the boxes, and the martins have to a large extent disappeared; this is a pity, since they are beneficial birds, feeding upon insects which are injurious to our farms and gardens. They are also delightful birds to have around, and we may possibly induce them to come back to us by building houses for them and driving away the sparrows.


A martin house.

The Chimney Swift

dropcap image hen the old-fashioned fire-places went out of use and were walled up, leaving the great old chimneys useless, these sociable birds took possession of them. Here they built their nests and reared their young, and twittered and scrambled about, awakening all sleepers in the neighborhood at earliest dawn, and in many ways made themselves a distinct part of family life. With the disappearance of these old chimneys and the growing use of the smaller chimney, the swifts have been more or less driven from their close association with people; and now their nests are often found in hay barns or other secluded buildings, although they still gather in chimneys when opportunity offers.

The chimney swifts originally built nests in hollow trees and caves; but with the coming of civilization they took possession of the chimneys disused during the summer, and here is where we know them best. The nests are shaped like little wall pockets; they are made of small sticks of nearly uniform size which are glued together and glued fast to the chimney wall by means of the saliva secreted in the mouth of the bird. After the nesting season, the swifts often gather in great flocks and live together in some large chimney; toward night-fall they may be seen circling about in great numbers and dropping into the mouth of the chimney, one by one, as if they were being poured into a funnel. In the morning they leave in reverse manner, each swift flying about in widening circles as it leaves the chimney. The swifts are never seen to alight anywhere except in hollow trees or chimneys or similar places; their tiny feet have sharp claws for clinging to the slightest roughness of the upright wall; the tail acts as a prop, each tail feather ending in a spine which is pressed against the chimney side when the bird alights and thus enables it to cling more firmly. In this fashion the swifts roost, practically hung up against a wall.

The swift has a short beak and wide mouth which it opens broadly to engulf insects as it darts through the air. Chimney swifts have been known to travel at the rate of 110 miles an hour.

This bird should never be confused with the swallows, for when flying, its tail seems simply a sharp point, making the whole body cigar-shaped. This character alone distinguishes it from the long tailed swallows. In color it is sooty brown, with a gray throat and breast; the wings are long and narrow and apparently curved. The manner of flight and appearance in the air make it resemble the bat more than it does the swallow.


Tree swallows.

Photo by A. A. Allen.

Lesson XXVII

The Swallows and Swifts

Leading thought—The swallows are very graceful birds and are exceedingly swift fliers. They feed upon insects which they catch upon the wing. There are five native swallows which are common—the eave, or cliff, the barn, the bank, the tree swallow and the purple martin. The chimney swift, although often called so, is not a swallow; it is more nearly related to the hummingbird than to the swallows.

Method—The questions should be given as an outline for observation, and may be written on the blackboard or placed in the field notebook. The pupils should answer them individually and from field observation. We study the swifts and swallows together to teach the pupils to distinguish them apart.


1. What is the general shape of the swallow? What is the color of the forehead, throat, upper breast, neck, rump and tail?

2. Is the tail noticeably forked especially during flight?

3. Describe the flight of the swallow. What is the purpose of its long, swift flight? How are the swallow's wings fitted for carrying the bird swiftly?

4. Describe the form of the beak of the swallow. How does it get its food? What is its food?

5. In what particular locations do you see the swallows darting about? At what time of day do they seem most active?

6. Describe the swallow's legs and feet and explain why they look so different from those of the robin and blackbird.

The Eave, or Cliff Swallow

7. Where do the eave swallows build their nests? Of what material is the outside? The lining? Describe the shape of the nest and how it is supported.

8. How early in the spring do the eave swallows begin to make their nests? Where and by what means do they get the material for nest building? Are there a number of nests usually grouped together?

9. Describe the eave swallow's egg. Where do the parents sit when feeding the young? What is the note of the eave swallow?

10. What are the differences between the barn and the eave swallow in color and shape of tail?

The Barn Swallow

11. Where does the barn swallow place its nest? What is the shape of the nest? Of what material is it made?

12. What is the color of the eggs? Describe the feeding of the young and the sounds made by them and their parents. Do both parents work together to build the nest and feed the young?

13. Is there usually more than one nest in the same locality? When the young swallows are large enough to leave the nest, describe how the parents continue to care for them.

14. Have you ever heard the barn swallows sing? Describe their conversational notes.

15. When do the barn swallows migrate and where do they go during the winter? How can you distinguish the barn swallow from the eave swallow?

The Bank Swallow

16. Where do the bank swallows build? What sort of soil do they choose?

17. How does a bank look which is tenanted by these birds?

18. How far do the bank swallows tunnel into the earth? What is the diameter of one of these tunnels? Do they extend straight or do they rise or deflect?

19. With what tools is the tunnel excavated? Where is the nest situated in the tunnel and how is it lined?

20. How can you distinguish this species from the barn and eave and tree swallows? At what time do the bank swallows leave us for migration south?


A tree swallow.

Photo by George Fiske, Jr.

The Tree Swallow

21. Where does the tree swallow make its nest? How does its nest differ from that of the barn, eave, or bank swallow? When does it begin to build?

22. How can we encourage the tree swallow to build near our houses? Why is the tree swallow a much more desirable bird to have in bird houses than the English sparrow?

23. Describe the peculiar migrating habits of the tree swallow. How can you tell this species from the barn, the eave and the bank swallows?

The Purple Martin

24. Compare the purple martin with the swallows and describe how it differs in size and color.

25. Where did the martins build their nests before America was civilized? Where do they like to nest now? How do the purple martins benefit us and how can we induce them to come to us?

The Chimney Swift

26. Where do the chimney swifts build their nests? Of what materials is the nest made? What is its shape and how is it supported? Where does the chimney swift get its glue for nest building?

27. Describe how the chimney swifts enter their nesting place at night. Where and how do they perch? Describe the shape of the swift's tail and its use to the bird when roosting.

28. On what does the chimney swift feed and how does it procure this food? Describe how its beak is especially fitted for this?

29. How can you distinguish the chimney swift from the swallows? In what respect does the chimney swift resemble the swallows? In what respects does it differ from them?

Supplementary reading—"Chimney Swifts," Familiar Wild Animals, Lottridge; The Chimney Swifts, Washington Irving; Nestlings of Forest and Marsh, Wheelock, p. 191; "The Eave Swallow" and "The Purple Martin" in The Bird Book, Eckstorm; The Second Bird Book, Miller; True Bird Stories, Miller, p. 118; Our Birds and Their Nestlings, p. 155; A Watcher in the Woods, Sharp, p. 163.

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