A single Violet-green Swallow can consume hundreds of mosquitoes and midges a day. With 40 or so nesting box cavities scattered throughout the village of Chignik Lake (population 50), these iridescently-plumaged little fellows and their Tree Swallow cousins are local favorites.
Chignik Lake’s first swallows, multi-hued Violet-greens, made their seasonal debut yesterday, May 15. This morning we went out to get photos of these much anticipated first arrivals. Tree Swallows, which will also use the dozens of nesting boxes residents have put up, should be arriving any time now along with the Bank Swallows that have established a colony on a bluff a mile or so down the Chignik River.
The Native American tradition of hanging nesting cavities for swallows goes as far back as anyone knows. Writing in the 1800’s, John J. Audubon noted that:
The… Indian is also fond of the Martin’s company. He frequently hangs up a calabash on some twig near his camp, and in this cradle the bird keeps watch, and sallies forth to drive off the Vulture that might otherwise commit depredations on the deer-skins or pieces of venison exposed to the air to be dried. The slaves in the Southern States take more pains to accommodate this favourite bird. The calabash is neatly scooped out, and attached to the flexible top of a cane, brought from the swamp, where that plant usually grows, and placed close to their huts. Almost every country tavern has a Martin box on the upper part of its sign-board; and I have observed that the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be.
It’s sad to see those annoying, energy-wasting, indiscriminate electric bug zappers, which kill beautiful moths along with everything else, hung more often than nesting boxes in these modern times. A nesting pair of birds will do a better job keeping pests under control, add cheer to any property, and when the wooden box has seen its best days it can be be left to return to soil rather than discarded to fill our world with yet more plastic, toxic parts and slowly-decomposing metal.
If nesting boxes around our village are any indication, they need not be elaborate. All that’s needed is untreated wood, a saw, a means to cut a hole, nails or screws and the appropriate tool for securing that hardware. Although it is often recommended that boxes be cleaned out annually, we know of no one here who does so. The swallows themselves seem perfectly capable of spring cleaning when they arrive, as they have done with natural cavities for as long as swallows have been around. However, if you’d feel better about cleaning out the boxes once the nesting season is finished, by all means go for it; you’ll be creating a clean space for birds that use the boxes as overnight and foul weather shelters during wintertime.
Engaged in housekeeping (removing his offsprings’ excrement) this Violet-green and his mate made a nest behind a knothole in the side of a store in McCarthy, Alaska.
Two additional tips for your own backyard nesting boxes:
- Do Not put any sort of ledge or peg in front of the hole. As you can see in the photo below, swallows and other cavity nesters don’t need a perch. Their claws are adapted to cling to the sides of trees. The only purpose a ledge or peg serves is to give nest-raiders such as magpies, crows and other predators a perch from which to get at eggs and nestlings.
- Give some thought to the species of bird you hope to attract, then research the size of entry hole and the size of the interior cavity that bird prefers.
To those tips, we’ll add a third. Invasive European Starlings and House Sparrows haven’t yet found us out here on the Alaska Peninsula. If they are a problem where you live, we urge that they be discouraged from nesting by any means necessary. Both of these birds represent a significant, growing threat to species diversity.
Don’t have the time or the right tools to build your own boxes? Consider purchasing. A cedar box will last a long time, making it an economical gift to birds for years or even decades to come. And don’t be discouraged if your boxes don’t attract guests right away. Sometimes it takes more than one season for birds to move in.
Flowers are blooming, insects are out, swallows are returning and salmon are beginning to stage in the bay for their annual spawning run up the Chignik River. It still feels like spring, but summer is just around the corner.