One of the most popular birds seen swooping and circling above our waterfront are swallows. Seven species of swallows call Western New York home, and I spotted four of those species while kayaking the Buffalo River from Red Jacket Riverfront Natural Habitat Park to Canalside!
One of my favorites, the Tree Swallow, is a beautiful bird with a brilliant blue back and white underside. They get their name because they build their nests in the cavity of trees. Tree Swallows cannot drill their own cavity, so they often rely on the holes left behind by woodpeckers in dead trees along the water’s edge. Where natural cavities are lacking, they will eagerly nest in rectangle nest boxes put up by humans.
Barn Swallows are one of the most popular birds found living among humans. All they need is an open field or water and a surface to stick their nests onto. They use mud and their saliva to build a cup shaped nest on the sides of buildings or underneath the docks of the grain silos. Barn Swallows are easy to identify while flying because they have a distinctive V-shaped tail that leads to a dark blue back with an orange tinged face and underside. These insect devouring machines can eat up to 60 insects an hour and up to 850 per day! Look for them flying in and out of the open grain silo windows.
The Cliff Swallow has also benefited from increased human structures in the landscape. These birds look like their cousin the Barn Swallow, but have a big white triangle on their forehead. They make their dome nests out of mud and would typically adhere them to the sides of cliffs west of the Mississippi River. Over the last 150 years as humans have built more bridges and buildings, these swallows began to build their nests on them. This allowed them to nest in places they couldn’t before and they expanded their range into the Great Plains and eastward. Today they can be seen building nests on the USS Little Rock docked at Canalside! Cliff Swallow and Barn Swallow nests also look similar. The way to tell the difference is Barn Swallows make a cup shaped nest while the Cliff Swallow nests are domed and only have a round keyhole opening.
While most swallows are social and are seen flying and nesting in groups, the Northern Rough Winged Swallow is more of a loner. Often spotted alone or in small groups, they are the least colorful of our local swallows, with a brown back and white breast. These swallows nest in tunnels on stream banks, often taking advantage of dens left behind by other animals, such as kingfishers or even humans. Look for them on the Buffalo River near General Mills, where they nest inside of the pipes embedded into the walls along the river.
All of our swallows only spend the summer in Buffalo before heading south for the winter. Spot all seven swallows: Barn, Cliff, Northern-Rough Winged, Tree, Purple Martin, Cave, and Bank, before they migrate south and #BirdtheBuffaloBlueway while the insects are hot!