For the Birds Radio Program: Violet-green Swallow

Original Air Date: July 26, 1995

Laura Erickson’s vacation out west gave her a chance to see a special kind of swallow. 4:16

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Most western species are duller and drabber than their eastern counterparts, blending in with the drab and pale arid soil and sparse vegetation, but this rule doesn’t hold with swallows. The Tree Swallow, found throughout most of North America, both east and west, is snow white beneath, and a lovely blue or green iridescent above–you’d think you couldn’t get much better than that.

But the Violet-green Swallow, breeding from Mexico all the way up to northern Alaska, somehow manages to top it. It’s snow white beneath, too, but the white extends up its cheeks, showing off its dark, gentle eye. When a Violet-green Swallow looks into your eyes, you know it. The white also extends up the sides where the back meets the tail, and no matter how poor the light, you can identify this bird by the unique pattern of the white feathers extending up and almost meeting in the middle of the rump in two semi-circles. Its back and crown are a velvety¬≠ soft, non-iridescent green–different and somehow more tropical looking than the metallic green on Tree Swallows. And in the right light, the rump and tail are a beautiful shade of violet I’ve never seen on any other species.

Audubon didn’t get the rump right at all in his painting in Birds of America, and of all the modern field guides on the market, the only one that comes close to capturing both the lovely pattern and the color is the western Peterson guide.

One evening at Yellowstone, we found a couple of dozen on the roof of the Old Faithful Lodge, and the low sun shining on their feathers at exactly the right angle made them one of the loveliest visions I’ve seen in my life. Throughout our week in the west, this exquisite creature was the most abundant species we saw, but never once did the thought that “it’s just another Violet-green Swallow” cross my mind. Such beauty and grace easily won it a spot on my list of most favored birds of all.

For all its loveliness and its tame, confiding manner, there’s surprisingly little about the Violet¬≠ green Swallow in bird books. Arthur Cleveland Bent calls it “a dainty feathered gem,” and writes fondly of it, but even he devotes to it only 2/3 the space he allots the Tree Swallow in his Life Histories of North American Birds. Ornithologists and bird watchers have always been more concentrated in the eastern than western United States, and so eastern birds are far more often the subject of books and beautiful species accounts than western species, and some western birds seem especially to get short shrift.

Unlike our familiar Tree Swallow, who has the longest intestine of any swallow and thus can digest berries and even seeds when the temperature is too cold for insects, the Violet-green Swallow is apparently completely limited to an insect diet. Although its wide mouth is designed for catching insects on the wing, I watched a number of them sitting on the roof picking up crawling insects as well.

Because they absolutely depend on bugs, they can’t remain in the far reaches of their range too late in the summer–they retreat from Alaska and western Canada in July, leave Denver and thereabouts in August, and will have left even Arizona and southern California by early September. They winter in Mexico and Central America–another of the myriad reasons I yearn to spend one winter of my life in Costa Rica.

Oddly, birders and ornithologists have twice found this species in Minnesota–both in the Rochester area, the first in October, 1942, the second time about 50 years later, when I could easily have chased it down for my state list. But this is one rarity I’d rather not add–1 prefer seeing this lovely bird in the part of the country where it feels genuinely happy and at home.