At the Project:
Tree Swallows have been present, claiming boxes and courting for weeks. Have you
noticed how long it's taken for nest building to start? Bits of vegetation appeared in
boxes early in site-claiming. But then there seemed to be a pause. However, box
checks now reveal nest building has finally begun in earnest.
Why do birds spend time and energy making nests? What's a nest's purpose?
- Nests contain and confine eggs and young in one place. They keep eggs and
young from falling out or getting lost.
- Nest structure clusters eggs and young together for efficient incubation and
- Nests can protect and insulate eggs and young from wind, cold, and damp that
could conduct heat away.
Why did it take Tree Swallows so long to start to build?
- Tree Swallow arrival, site claiming, and pair formation take place while it's still
cold. Many other migrant species won't be back for another month or more.
- Early arriving swallows won't be laying eggs right away so maybe they don't
need to hurry to build nests. (For late-nesters it's a different story, as we'll see)
What are Tree Swallow nests made of? What material do you see in boxes
and see swallows bringing? Describe a nest.
- There's usually a base with a cup, both made of dead dry grasses and plant
stems, or occasionally pine needles. Sticks or twigs aren't used.
- In completed nests feathers, usually white, line and arch over the cup.
Where are the swallows getting their nest vegetation?
- Most is gathered from the ground within sight of the cavity. Photo below by
How is the vegetation collected?
- A swallow flies low, looking down, then drops to the ground.
- It picks a piece of vegetation in its bill, tugging it loose with flapping wings if
- Carrying the vegetation in its bill it flies to the nest cavity.
- Landing at entrance holes with nest material and manipulating it into boxes can
be difficult. Large pieces are often dropped.
How do swallows move on the ground as they gather nest material?
- Awkwardly. They may flop along using wings for balance.
- Their legs are very short and not well-adapted for walking or hopping.
What is the sequence of Tree Swallow nest construction?
- Bits of vegetation appear during box claiming.
- A slight ring forms around the box floor (below left).
- The ring becomes more obvious as vegetation is added (below, left center).
- The base thickens and the cup becomes obvious. Box bottoms may still show
(below, right center).
- Feathers, some quite large, are added gradually.
- Cups are finally completed and feather linings are in place (below right). Some
nests have many more feathers than the one shown.
- Cups may be formed in the back middle or back corners rather the center.
- It's suspected some swallows build cups far from entrances to make it harder for
predators to reach eggs, young or parents.
- Click here for a YouTube video of one female Tree Swallow building her nest of
plant material, as viewed from Francois Paquette's in-box camera in Quebec.
You may be surprised at her technique.
How long does nest building take once really begun?
- One to two weeks is average, but we've found placing dried grasses (see below)
on the ground beneath the box shortens the time required.
- Feathers are added for several additional weeks.
- Late season nests may be skimpier and built in just a few days.
Who builds nests, males, females, or both?
- In our experience females bring all the plant material.
- Both males and females bring feathers.
- Females do the nest-building, arranging the vegetation and feathers.
- Females shape the cup, pushing nest vegetation with their breast.
- Many other songbirds have similar divisions of labor by sex.
What do males do while females gather vegetation?
- Males often stay at the box guarding it, while females come and go gathering
vegetation. They don't accompany females collecting nest material.
- Males typically give a soft "Gurgle" call as females bring material and while
females are inside the box nest building. It's believed this call helps stimulate
female nest building and strengthens the pair bond.
- Perhaps the most important way male Tree Swallows contribute to nest building
is by searching for feathers and bringing them into the nest cavity.
- By clicking here you can watch YouTube video of Francois Paquette's male and
female swallows bringing feathers, and observe how feathers are handled inside
What's the purpose of the feathers?
- Research has shown that well-feathered nests cool off much slower than nests
with few or no feathers, keeping eggs and young warmer during times when the
female swallow must be away.
- Nestlings in well-feathered, well-insulated nests could therefore use more of
their energy for growth and development and spend less trying to stay warm.
- A warmer nest may also let adults spend more time away gathering food.
- Feathers could also help hide eggs and young from predators.
- Feathers may inhibit ectoparasites in some way.
- It's possible feathers protect nestlings from being cut or scratched by the ends
of coarse nest vegetation.
- Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, Tree Swallow nestlings have
been found to grow larger and faster, and to survive to fledging more often in
nests well-lined with feathers, so these feathers are a valuable resource.
Why are white feathers preferred?
- We aren't sure. It's possible they make swallows' white eggs less visible to
Where do swallows get the feathers? Can you identify the bird species the
feathers in your boxes came from?
- Since swallows often nest in or near wetlands, waterfowl and gulls are common
- If necessary Tree Swallows will fly several miles to get suitable feathers.
What happens when a swallow arrives carrying a feather?
- Other swallows may give chase and try to steal it for their own nests.
- Pursuers call loudly, which may draw a crowd of chasers.
- Battles often ensue before one finally is able to get the feather into its nest.
Photo below by Euan Reid.
- Try bringing white feathers to your project. Throw some up, and watch the
commotion that follows. Include a few large ones that require real skill to carry
and maneuver through the entrance hole into the nest.
- Watch this amazing YouTube video to see how just how eager Tree Swallows
can be to get white feathers!
Question for the next Topic: Bird Flight.
- How are birds' bodies different from ours?
- How are these differences related to a bird's ability to fly?
- What can't a bird do with its wings?
- How does a bird change the shape of its wings during flight in order to push
down a large wing and raise up a small wing?
Learn About Birds at Tree Swallow Nest Box Projects
|Nesting Guide, Spring Return, Songbird Behavior, Song and Calls, Nest Site Competition,
Pairing Up, Nest Building, Bird Flight, Mating, Eggs and Egg Laying, Incubation,
Takeovers, Feather Care, Hatching, Nestling Care, Sexing and Aging,
Nestling Growth, Mortality, Older Nestlings, Fledging, Ectoparasites, Juveniles,
Flocks, Migration, Molt, and Winter, Box Care and Project Assessment