Violet-green Swallow (VGSW)

Colorado has 8.3% of the U.S. population of Violet-green Swallows, coming in a close 3rd after Alaska (10.5%) and Washington (8.5%).  VGSWs—-especially the males—-are lovely, graceful, chattery birds.  It’s a challenge to find a photo on the Internet that does justice to the eponymous violet and green areas of the adult male.  Heaven knows we tried our darnedest this year.  While neither of these is ideal, you can at least get a hint of the colors.  You will need to enlarge the photo (click on the photo once) to see the green on the shoulder and head in the first one and the overtail covert violet patch in the second.

male VGSW

male VGSW

VGSW male

male VGSW

The females are much less spectacularly colored.  Here’s one waiting not so patiently while we bother her box, with an insect in her mouth.  (You will need the larger format to see that also.)

fenale VGSW

female VGSW

You can find information about the natural history of VGSWs at the Sialis Web site.

This year, we had 17 VGSW nests in nest boxes—-the most frequent occupant by a factor of 3.  (The next highest number was 6 Mountain Bluebird pairs.)  We caught this female trying out a box for size and location—-I love the feather smile.

female VGSW nest-building

female VGSW nest-building

VGSWs are the latest of the cavity nesters in our area.  This year, the first signs of nest construction occurred in early June.  Their nests are usually easy to differentiate from the other species starting nests at the same time—-for us, typically just the Ash-throated Flycatchers—-because they always incorporate feathers.  Lots of feathers.  Some are rather skimpy, structurally, especially those started from scratch as the one below was.

VGSW nest from scratch

VGSW nest from scratch

Some refurbish the nest of an earlier cavity nester, adding their own touches—-and feathers—-to the structure.  This year, VGSWs took over a used MOBL nest, a JUTI nest, an MOCH nest, and 2 WBNU nests.  Here’s a photo of the JUTI conversion.

VGSW nest on JUTI nest

VGSW nest on JUTI nest

This year, a very industrious VGSW went a bit crazy with feathers. Just as the VGSWs were starting their nests, we also had a large number of Band-tailed Pigeons (BTPIs) coming to our feeders. Sky-darkening flocks of BTPIs. With such large birds moderately close to the house, we not surprisingly had a number of window strikes—-producing a large number of BTPI feathers available for VGSW nests. The nest of this female looks as if she had murdered a BTPI and stuffed all of its feathers in her nest. She was “caught in the act” with a feather in her mouth in the midst of a sea of other feathers.

VGSW--the feather queen

VGSW--the feather queen

VGSW eggs are small and unmarked–almost translucent until just before hatching.  Here’s a photo of an unhatched egg left in a nest after the nestlings had fledged, using the “universal size tool”—-the penny.

VGSW egg

VGSW egg

Here’s a nest with eggs in it.  The nests in our boxes this year had 2-6 eggs, with an average of 4 eggs per nest.

VGSW nest with eggs

VGSW nest with eggs

These hatchlings are less than 1 day old. Seeming to mug for the camera (“All right, Mr. DeMille. I’m ready for my close-up”), the fellow on the far right (the first to hatch) really shows off the “clown lips” of the large (relatively speaking) mouths and white gape flanges (edges of the beak).

nestlings--~1 day old

nestlings--~1 day old

Next, the same nest when the nestlings are about 6 days old.

VGSW nestlings--~6 days old

VGSW nestlings--~6 days old

And again, the same nest at age 15 days.

VGSW nestlings--~15 days old

VGSW nestlings--~15 days old

Here is a clearer photo of a different group of nestlings around the same age—-17 days old. (Rather than using the hand mirror to get a better photo, Zell had to use the mirror to keep this adventurous dude from hopping out.)

VGSW nestlings--~17 days old

VGSW nestlings--~17 days old

Here’s a different nest of soon-to-be fledglings—-about 22 days old.  These kids probably fledged the following day or so.

VGSW nestlings, ~22 days old

VGSW nestlings, ~22 days old

And finally, a soon-to-be-fledgling, getting ready to take the plunge. (Its nestmates had fledged the day before.) It looks very much like an adult female except that the white gape flanges are still apparent, making the beak appear to be light with a dark tip rather than all dark.

VGSW soon-to-be-fledgling

VGSW soon-to-be-fledgling

diamond-shaped entrance hole

diamond-shaped entrance hole

For those who might be curious, the entrance hole in this box is a variation of our typical 1.5″ round hole.  Zell had read that swallows sometimes like diamond-shaped holes.  So, he adapted a 1.5″ hole to this diamond shape.  He extended a line from the horizontal diameter 3/4″ on each side.  He then drew a triangle on each side with the 3/4″ point as the apex.  Using a saber saw, he removed the material within those triangles and—-voilà!  A diamond-shaped entrance.  He altered the entrance holes of 2 of our boxes; one was taken by this VGSW family and one was taken by a chipmunk.  Both seemed pleased with it.  But with these 2 boxes representing just 2% of all of our boxes, we can’t really say anything definitive about the VGSW preference at this point.  It should be noted that this design might not be advisable if your area has European Starlings; I believe they like this shape as well and can squeeze in the opening.   (You can see the dimensions of our typical box at nest box monitoring.)

© 2008 Tina Mitchell

10 Responses to Violet-green Swallow (VGSW)

  1. Paulette Cothern says:

    Tina, Awesome pictures and descriptive data! Thanks for sharing. The VGSW’s nest closely resembles the Tree Swallow’s nest including lining them with multiple feathers. Three of my bluebird boxes have Tree Swallows in them now. I want to try your opening on a couple of boxes to see if the Bluebirds or Tree Swallows will use them here in Middle TN. Keep up the good work!

  2. Gene Derig says:

    Dear Folks,

    For Violet-green Swallow nest box entries, try using a 3/4″ high slot configuration. The slot is made by drilling three consecutive horizontal holes with a 3/4″ drill bit, and then just shaving out what’s left. It excludes House Sparrows and of course starlings. Violet-greens, chickadees, nuthatches can all use it and not have to compete with non-native birds. It is especially good for urban areas where there are more House Sparrows.

    Unfortunately, I don’t believe the Tree Swallows can use the entry–they are a bit bigger and have to compete with the invasives. But if you do have luck getting Tree Swallows to enter, let me know.

    Anyway, this is free information from a fellow birder. The Washington State Dept. of F & W will start publishing the entry in its materials soon. I came up with the diamond shaped idea which works fine, but the 3/4″ slot is even better because anyone with a 3/4″ drill bit can make sparrow-proof nest boxes.

    You have a great site. Nice photography. Have a good summer.

    Gene Derig
    PO Box 341/1302 K. Avenue
    Anacortes, WA 98221

    Gene–

    Thanks for adding this info. We’re lucky in that we don’t have non-native in the Coaldale area (knock on wood), so we don’t have to worry about those fellows. (We also don’t have Tree Swallows, so we won’t be able to help there.) But folks from all over the country read this page, so it will be great information for them.

    Tina

  3. Ex Back says:

    My fellow on Orkut shared this link with me and I’m not dissapointed that I came to your blog.

  4. Keith Kridler says:

    Wonderful flow to the photos and text! A few Tree Swallows nest in Texas but have ONLY been found in natural cavities or nest boxes mounted over the water in larger lakes. Interesting that your swallows seem to be nesting along trails far from large bodies of water. Thanks for sharing. Keith Kridler

  5. Awesome work Tina, and I LOVE your descriptions! Your photos are a bounty to most of us who have never seen Violet-green swallows or their nests, thank you for sharing! (And for helping me so much with my website and the VGSW bio at http://www.sialis.org/vgswbio.htm.)

  6. Mary Roen says:

    These swallows are beautiful. I have seen them once when out west. We have tree swallows here. The swallows are all fun to watch. Great pictures!

  7. Duane Rice says:

    How totally wonderful nature is in all it’s grandeur and detail.
    I see many similarities in Tree Swallows and VGSW s .

  8. patticat says:

    Wonderful photos. Here in NY we have Tree Swallows that nest near our EABLs. They are very friendly birds and so excited about feathers during the nest building process, that they will take one from your outstretched hand. We love to watch them “hunt.” we call them the f-16s of the bird world.
    btw..your site is beautiful and full of information.
    Thank you

  9. Charlene Anchor says:

    Very interesting and well done. Love the pictures taking us step by step through the process. I’ve never seen a VGSW before. You’ve provided my first learning experience! Where did you come up with that unique entry hole? I’ll be revisiting this again.

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