By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Swallows, along with martins and saw-wings, are a part of the passerine songbird family that can be found singing their songs on all continents, occasionally including Antarctica. Swallows are distinctive in appearance, with dark glossy-blue backs, red throats and pale underparts accompanied by long tail streamers. Different species of the small bird vary in colour. They have a slender, streamlined body and long pointed wings, which allows for endurance, maneuverability, and gliding. Known for their ability to aerial feed, swallows have adapted to hunting insects on the wing. They are very agile in flight and spend most of the time in it. Not only can they sing, but swallows also have some zing to them, reaching speeds of between 55 to 65 km/h. A single barn swallow can consume up to 60 insects per hour, or a whopping 850 per day, which helps make outdoors a bit more enjoyable for humans.

Widespread across the world, these birds breed in the Northern Hemisphere, then migrate south in winter. There are more than 90 varieties of swallows and the six that can be seen in British Columbia for at least half of the year are tree, cliff, violet-green, northern rough-winged, bank and barn — the latter two being the most common in our valley, which is located on the unceded territories of the Secwépemc and Ktunaxa Peoples and the land chosen as home by the Métis Peoples. Barn swallows are traditionally blue and orange and look for the protection of overhanging rocks when building their nests, which will often be in shallow caves or on the faces of cliffs. Because their nests are mostly composed of mud pellets that have plastered and dried, the locations allow protection from the rain, keeping their homes intact.

These birds first got their name by using to their advantage the first barn structures built by European settlers. They now rely more on the man-made structures to build their nests that are ultimately safer than their covered sites in nature ever were. The bank swallow, along with the northern rough-winged swallow, are two of the few types of swallow species lacking vibrant colours. Instead, their shades of brown allow them to blend in and camouflage against the dirt banks, where they prefer to dig and place their nests. More sociable than other bird species, bank swallows don’t mind close quarters and can form colonies in which up to 1,000 tunnels are crammed together.  They also opt for the edges of man-made quarries in areas where dirt banks are not accessible. It is in late summer that bank swallows will flock by the hundreds to gather near lakes and marshes, water features in abundance in our valley.

Hard to swallow

As widespread as these different species are, the populations of the barn and bank swallows are in decline across Canada and have officially been considered a threatened species since 2017. This decline is part of a larger trend, the distressing signal that ecosystems are extremely out of balance. In Canada over the past 40 years, there have been many birds that rely on a diet of flying insects, including varieties of swallows like the bank and barn, that have seen a decline in population If nothing changes, their sweet song of spring will no longer be heard.

Something to sing about:

The Species At Risk Act (SARA) is in place in a bid to ensure we don’t lose the sweet tune these songbirds carry. In addition, the Columba Valley Swallow Project first spread its wings in 2020. It is through the knowledge of researchers, farmers, naturalists and Indigenous communities that a deeper understanding is being formed to keep swallows thriving. While the swallow does not hold strong representation in Indigenous culture like other birds, such as the raven and eagle in folktale, the swallow is associated with humility and being industrious and, across many cultures, has also been linked to joy, love, loss and hope.