Montana's Centennial Valley offers a vast habitat variety making it the perfect location for your next self-guided bird watching vacation. Birding in Montana is a great way to experience nature. Let our western Montana Lodge serve as home base while you enjoy days of self-guided bird watching in Montana's birding paradise gazing upon the small and rare Neo-tropical Warblers to the more common Eagles. Although Montana Tree Swallows do not fall into the category of 'special' in most birders' opinions - I find them fascinating.
By the time the snow has receded, and the grass is beginning to color under the sun's gentle caress, the birds which herald the new season have arrived. Like leaves caught in a whirlwind, they twirl toward the sky flashing light and dark, then swoop toward the ground, aerial daredevils again. Moments later their shadows write a morning greeting upon the early morning light streaming through my window. The white-bellied swallows, commonly called tree swallows, often arrive as early as late March. While the ground is still cold and snow covered, they begin their search for perfect nesting sites. In fact so reliable is their return, April 15 is traditionally considered "Swallow Day" in England.
Scandinavian tradition says the name ‘swallow' was given to this bird because it hovered over our Lord's cross crying "Svala! Svala!" which translated means "Console! Console!". The tree swallow is a medium-sized bird with males averaging 5 ½ inches long with a 10-inch wing span. Pure white on their underparts with slightly forked tails, adult males in their breeding plumage have glossy metallic blue upper parts tinged in green. Females are similar in size and coloration although they are often slightly duller and may have brownish foreheads.
In our region the tree swallow is most similar to the violet-green swallow, both often sighted during the summer months in open areas on Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. They prefer willow plantations and reed beds to large trees, and are frequently seen skimming over meadows and along stream banks. Unlike other swallow species, the tree swallow does not nest in tight colonies. In fact, the male is very territorial. Resembling winged sword fighters, these feisty little guys feint and dip, then charge aggressively. They defend up to a 15 yards radius around their nest against other tree swallows, and often against other hole nesting species as well.
Poetry in motion, these acrobatic birds put on an endless aerial show - twisting, turning, and diving. A delight to watch, they can be seen sailing, circling, turning, and winding through the air in their search for food. In fact tree swallows so enjoy flying, they have even been observed playing fetch with a feather, dropping and then retrieving it as it floated in the air.
Rarely settling on the ground, tree swallows feed on the wing, unceasingly pursuing breakfast, lunch, dinner, and nearly nonstop snacks. At speeds ranging from 19 to 25 miles per hour, they sweep across meadows, ponds, rivers, and lawns, seizing their prey with a snapping noise which may be heard at some distance. Using their uniquely shaped tail as a rudder, they can easily stall midair to snatch an insect which didn't quite get away. Each bird consumes close to 2000 bugs per day - feeding on flies, ants, beetles, bees, grasshoppers, wasps, and other pests. To wash down a meal, these graceful birds skim low over the water's surface scooping drinks into their open mouths.
Somewhat unique among the bird species, tree swallows will often raise two broods each year. Their nest, located in a natural cavity or a man-made bird house, is globular in form. Fine grasses form the base which they abundantly line with various feathers. As May draws to a close the female lays four to six pinkish-white eggs. At this point, maybe to insulate her up and coming brood from the still cold nights, she will often add feathers, usually white, to her nest. For the next 14 to 15 days the male and female trade off incubating the eggs. Once hatched, Mom and Dad are kept busy feeding their hungry young. Growing quickly, the young swallows are ready to take to the air within three weeks.
Swallows have strong ties to tradition and superstition. Many people have heard it is lucky for a swallow to build a nest over their house door. This superstition finds its source in the ancient Roman belief that the swallow was sacred to their household gods. Thus these ancient people viewed a swallow's nest above their house as a favorable sign.
Another fascinating swallow legend is held by the Bulgarian people. Many years ago in Bulgaria a new bride showed respect for her in-law's by abstaining from speaking in their presence for the first 40 days after her marriage. One extremely shy bride never uttered a word to her mother or father-in-law for three years. Believing her to be mute, her in- laws found their son another wife. Before the new bride could take up her position in the household; however, the shy bride spoke for the first time. Then she flew up the chimney. In trying to prevent her escape, her father-in-law reached out to catch her dress. He came away with only a handful of braiding. This accounts for the swallow's tail being split in two. Now a symbol of renewal in Bulgaria, the swallow has changed tradition, and young brides no longer keep mute before their in-laws.
Also unique to the swallow family, through their close relation to the swift family, is the dessert delicacy, "Bird's Nest Soup." Although many imitations exist, the primary ingredient in true "Bird's Nest Soup" is tiny Swiftlet nests found in caves in southeast Asia. These nests are made from the bird's gummy saliva. Apparently, this saliva is very sweet. Although I have heard the soup is an acquired taste, the Asians greatly desire it for its reputation as an aphrodisiac.
Deemed noteworthy by the wisest man, Solomon, these appealing birds are still often overlooked by those seeking a species more unique. I, however, delight in watching them as they rush together to chitter and chat, then scatter to the poles, only to repeat the process again moments later. And, I'd hate to imagine the bugs which would fill the air, were it not for these endless hunters with their insatiable appetites. With the sun winking off their jewel colored feathers as they sail and dip on the breeze, these perky little birds sparkle like spring's first treasure to me.