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Swallows in Alberta

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by Marissa Hansen

Alberta is home to a diverse array of wildlife. Among the many avian residents of this province, swallows stand out as fascinating and important species. These various bird species inhabit different environments across the province and have unique nesting habits. With factors such as climate change and habitat loss, many swallow species have seen a decline in population. It is important to understand swallows and their differences when creating conservation strategies.

Swallow Species of Alberta:

Tree Swallow

Tachycineta bicolor

Wild tree swallow. Photo by Vicki Hale.
The tree swallow is one of the most widespread species in Alberta, known for its iridescent blue-green plumage.1 Their preferred environments include open woodlands, wetlands, and fields near water sources. Tree swallows primarily nest in tree cavities, nest boxes, or even human-made structures.2 Tree Swallows prefer open areas near water where they can find an abundant supply of flying insects, which make up the bulk of their diet.2

Violet-Green Sparrow

Tachycineta thalassina

Violet-green swallow. CC BY-SA 3.0 by Wolfgang Wander.
Violet-green swallows are identifiable by their distinctive iridescent green and violet plumage 12. These medium-sized swallows prefer a variety of environments across the province, commonly being found in open woodlands, coniferous forests, and areas near water such as lakes and rivers 13. Violet-green swallows often opt for tree cavities as their nesting sites. Their nests are meticulously crafted with grasses, feathers, and twigs 13. They are insectivores and have adapted to catch their prey while in flight, showcasing remarkable maneuverability 12. Their diet typically includes a variety of small, flying insects such as flies, mosquitoes, beetles, and various other airborne invertebrates 12.

Barn Swallow

Hirundo rustica

Immature barn swallows in care at AIWC (2017).
Barn swallows are easily recognizable due to their vibrant blue plumage and deeply forked tails.3 This species has a strong association with human activity and is frequently found in agricultural areas.4 Barn swallows construct their cup-shaped nests from mud pellets, attaching them to horizontal surfaces.4

Cliff Swallow

Petrochelidon pyrrhonota

Cliff swallows in nests. Public Domain.
Cliff swallows are known for their square-tipped tails and rust-colored throats.5 They thrive in colonies, typically nesting on cliffs, bridges, and other man-made structures.5 Cliff swallows are known for their love of mud, as they use it to construct their nests.5

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Stelgidopteryx serripennis

Northern rough-winged swallow. CC BY-SA 3.0 by Dori ([email protected]).
Northern rough-winged swallows have brownish-gray plumage with small, rough-wing patches.7 They are commonly found near water in riparian areas with sand or soil banks.7 These swallows dig nesting burrows into the banks using their bills and feet.7 Their diet, like other swallows, primarily consists of insects, and they are often seen foraging near rivers, streams, and ponds.7

Bank Swallow

Riparia riparia

Bank swallow. CC BY-SA 2.0 by Rodrigo Saldanha de Almeida.
Bank swallows are small, agile birds, who are characterized by their brownish-gray plumage, square-tipped tails, and distinctive dark breast band 10. Bank swallows are commonly found near water bodies, particularly along riverbanks, lakeshores, and open landscapes throughout Alberta. Unlike some other swallow species that nest in trees or cliffs, bank swallows excavate burrows into the soft, sandy, or loamy soils found in riverbanks 10. These burrows serve as their nesting environments, providing a secure space for raising their young. Bank swallows are insectivores, and their diet primarily consists of flying insects 11. They are well-adapted to an insect-catching lifestyle. They are often observed flying low over open areas, including bodies of water, where they snatch insects from the air with remarkable agility. Their small size, streamlined bodies, and rapid, acrobatic flight make them efficient hunters 11.

Conservation Challenges

Barn swallow patients in care (2017).

While swallows in Alberta are not currently classified as endangered, they do face several threats that could impact their populations.

Habitat loss is a significant concern when it comes to the well-being of swallow populations in Alberta.8 The expansion of human development and the intensification of agriculture have profound consequences for these birds. This development heavily includes agricultural expansion. Alberta’s fertile land has made it a hotspot for agricultural activities.9 The cultivation of crops and the raising of livestock require large areas of land, which can encroach upon natural habitats. This expansion results in several problems including loss of foraging grounds, disruptions during nesting and habitat fragmentation.9

Pesticides play a crucial role in modern agriculture, helping to protect crops from pests and increase yields. However, the widespread use of these chemicals has raised significant concerns about their impact on the environment, including their effects on the insect populations that swallows rely on as their primary food source.9 In Alberta and beyond, the use of pesticides can have detrimental consequences for swallow populations and the ecosystems they inhabit. 

Pesticides are designed to be toxic to a wide range of insects, including those that swallows feed on. The application of insecticides, herbicides, and other agricultural chemicals can lead to direct harm to insect populations. Pesticides can significantly reduce the number of insects in agricultural areas.9 This reduction affects the availability of flying insects that swallows hunt while in flight, ultimately making it harder for these birds to find enough food.9 Swallows often have specific preferences for certain insect species. Pesticides may disproportionately affect these preferred prey species, further reducing the quality of the available food supply. Pesticides can also accumulate in the bodies of insects, making them increasingly toxic to the birds that consume them.9 This can lead to direct harm to swallow populations and affect their reproductive success.

Conservation Initiatives

Tree swallow in a nest box. Public Domain.

To address the population decline faced by swallows in Alberta, several conservation initiatives are in place:

Habitat Restoration: Conservationists work to restore and protect key swallow habitats, including wetlands, cliffs, and mud banks. Efforts may include re-vegetation, wetland preservation, and the creation of protected nesting areas.

Nest Box Programs: Providing artificial nesting sites, such as nest boxes, can help compensate for the loss of natural nesting locations and give swallows secure places to breed.

Sustainable Agriculture: Encouraging sustainable agricultural practices, such as reduced pesticide use and the preservation of natural vegetation alongside fields, can help maintain healthy insect populations and swallow foraging grounds.

Public Awareness: Educating the public about the importance of swallows and the consequences of habitat loss is vital for garnering support for conservation efforts and encouraging responsible land use practices.

The swallows of Alberta encompass a diverse array of species, each uniquely adapted to different environments and nesting habits. Although they are not currently in danger of extinction, swallows face challenges due to habitat loss, climate change, and other environmental factors. Conservation efforts are crucial to ensure the continued well-being of these remarkable birds and their vital role in Alberta’s ecosystems. By preserving their habitats and promoting public awareness, we can help secure the future of these incredible avian residents of Alberta.

Bibliography

  1. Jacklin, Meghan. “Tree Swallow.” Edmonton & Area Land Trust, April 27, 2023. https://www.ealt.ca/species-spotlight-list/tree-swallow.

     

  2. “Tree Swallow Overview, All about Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.” Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Accessed October 26, 2023. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Tree_Swallow/overview#.

     

  3. Parks Canada Agency, Government of Canada. “Barn Swallows.” Banff National Park, November 19, 2022. https://parks.canada.ca/pn-np/ab/banff/nature/conservation/Especes-species/rustique-barn.

     

  4. “Barn Swallow.” Hinterland Who’s Who – Barn Swallow. Accessed October 27, 2023. https://www.hww.ca/en/wildlife/birds/barn-swallow.html
  5. “Cliff Swallow.” Audubon, September 8, 2023. https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/cliff-swallow.

     

  6. De Jong, Michael J. “Northern Rough-Winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx Serripennis), Version 1.0.” Birds of the World, March 4, 2020. https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/species/nrwswa/cur/introduction.

     

  7. “Northern Rough-Winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx Serripennis).” Canada.ca. Accessed October 26, 2023. https://wildlife-species.canada.ca/bird-status/oiseau-bird-eng.aspx?sY=2014&sL=e&sM=p1&sB=NRWS.

     

  8. Amanda Simard. “Baird’s Sparrow.” Nature Canada, August 3, 2022. https://naturecanada.ca/discover-nature/endangered-species/bairds-sparrow/#:~:text=A%20lot%20of%20habitat%20is,parasitism%20and%20invasive%20exotic%20plants.

     

  9. Hinterland who’s who – pesticides and wild birds. Accessed October 26

  10.  “Bank Swallow (Riparia Riparia): In Sandpits and Quarries.” Government of Canada, May 17, 2021. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/species-risk-public-registry/related-information/bank-swallow-sandpits-quarries.html

  11. “Bank Swallow.” Audubon, January 14, 2024. https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/bank-swallow.

  12. “Violet-Green Swallow Overview, All about Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.” Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Accessed February 5, 2024. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Violet-green_Swallow/overview

  13.  “Violet-Green Swallow (Tachycineta Thalassina).” Canada.ca. Accessed February 5, 2024. https://wildlife-species.canada.ca/bird-status/oiseau-bird-eng.aspx?sY=2014&sL=e&sB=VGSW&sM=p1.

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