At the Project:
There's still lots of commotion around boxes. Second-year (SY) swallows, last year's
nestlings that migrate north two to four weeks after older birds, are arriving now,
adding to the chaos. The group in Ed Craft's photo below were part of a flock that
reached Indiana in early May, well after older Tree Swallows would have returned.
Note the plumage differences in these birds. Second-year Tree Swallow males can't
be distinguished from older males; all breeding age males have blue upper bodies.
To complicate things even more, older, after-second-year (ASY) females have the
same blue plumage as males! But SY females can be told by their mostly brownish
upper bodies and heads. So, of the 11 perched Tree Swallows in the photo above,
nine are brownish SY females with varying amounts of blue, and the two blue birds
are either SY males, ASY males, or ASY females, we can't tell which! For more on the
confusing subject of determining sex and age of Tree Swallows click here.
If this your project's first year a majority of your swallows may be prospecting SYs
that have never nested before. In older, well-established projects you can expect a
lower percentage of females will be brownish SYs.
Although we may have trouble telling their sexes apart, the Tree Swallows have no
such difficulty, and somehow, during all the commotion of site claiming, courtship
occurs, and the swallows pair up. And it happens fast!
Tree Swallow pairs seem to form very quickly, perhaps because both male and female
need to secure a nest site as soon as possible and defend it. This pair formation
process involves courtship.
What is courtship and what are its purposes?
- Courtship is the group of special vocal and physical displays a bird uses to
signal others of that bird's species of its sex, its "quality", and that it is ready
and willing to nest.
- Courtship displays are crucial in helping potential pair members overcome their
normal feelings of mutual hostility and fear, so they can form pair bonds.
- Courtship also helps synchronize the internal physical reproductive states of
the pair, and stimulates later stages of nesting.
Why would males and females that need to find a mate be hostile to one another or
afraid of each other?
- Aggression, fear, and sexual motivation to breed are all part of pair formation.
- Many, if not most songbirds act strictly as individuals most of the year, but
during the nesting season they must form partnerships with individuals of the
opposite sex in order to reproduce.
- To form this partnership the two birds must overcome instincts to act
aggressively or to flee from the other when the other approaches or is present.
- Courtship displays play an essential part in defusing these hostile or fearful
feelings and actions.
- Once the male and female get to "know" each other personally the tension of
mutual hostility and fear gradually goes away. They become used to the
other's presence and tolerate it with a minimum of friction.
What is the typical sequence of events in Tree Swallow pair formation?
- Males must successfully claim a nest cavity first, because females won't pair
with males unless they posses this most vital resource.
- Males use displays and calls to point their cavity out to passing females.
- Females that do approach often receive a hostile response from the males at
first, the same type of response they would give to repel other males
intruding into their space.
- Females that are really interested must overcome their fear and return
repeatedly, giving displays that identify themselves as females and gradually
pacify the males.
- Once the male comes to recognise a particular female as a non-threatening
individual and a potential mate his hostility lessens, and the two can begin to
use other displays to cement their pair bond.
How can you tell that a pair is established at a box?
- You will see two swallows perched together at a box, defending it.
- Males mainly defend against other intruding males, while females defend
against intruding females.
What does a male Tree Swallow "want" or "look for" in a female?
- A mate that is "good at being a Tree Swallow". In other words a female that
demonstrates by her behavior and physical attributes that she has the right
combination of genes and experience for keeping herself alive and reproducing
What does a female Tree Swallow "want" or "look for" in a male?
- The same that males want: a mate with genes and experience for keeping
himself alive and reproducing successfully.
Therefore, Tree Swallows, and other birds, must be able to assess potential partners
and "recognize" genetically-based "quality".
What happens if a "less fit" partner is accepted, one that isn't so good at Tree
Swallow life skills or at reproducing?
- Swallows that choose inferior mates may leave fewer descendants.
- Leaving descendants is the one and only reason for nesting.
How can females "recognize" good males?
- Good males usually possess nest sites (but not always, as we will see).
- Good males show they can keep nest sites by vigorous defense against other
- Good males show strong, agile flight during chases.
- Good males have healthy plumage.
- Good males use proper songs, calls, and displays to attract females so females
can gauge their qualities.
- Good males show few parasites.
How can males "recognize" good females?
- Good females show they can keep nest sites by vigorous defence against other
- Good females show strong, agile flight during chases.
- Good females have healthy plumage.
- Good females respond properly to male courtship behaviors.
- Good females initiate proper female courtship behaviors.
- Good females show few parasites.
Some Tree Swallow nest claiming behaviors are also used in pair formation. Such
dual purpose behaviors include:
- Chatter Call: Females will not pair with a male unless he possesses a nest
site. Chatter calls are given by males to encourage females to come look at
their sites. This call seems to proclaim "I'm tough and strong. I've claimed a
nest site and defended it. Come check it out".
- Perching at Hole: Males often perch at entrance holes, chattering and
fluttering their wings, pointing the cavity out to passing females.
- Chasing Another: Males may chase females and vice versa, which allows
potential pair members to display their flying abilities.
- Gaping: Swallows of either sex will gape, open-mouthed (see below), when
the nearness of another swallow stimulates mixed feelings of hostility and
fear. Gaping may help defuse the tension caused by these feelings, allowing a
male and female to tolerate each other's presence.
Some other behaviors seem just for pair formation. While they aren't as common
as those listed above you may see:
- Vertical Posture: Male perches on box with body and head held steeply
upright with bill pointed skyward.
- Courtship Pounce: Female response to male's Vertical Posture. Female
approaches perched male and displaces him, perching in his former spot. Male
may then Perch at Hole and Chatter.
- Bobbing and Billing: Perched pairs face each other, bobbing heads up and
down, sometimes making contact with their bills.
All these behaviors may be involved in courtship and pair formation, and there are
undoubtedly other, more subtle ones that are hard for us to see.
Be aware that pairs can be broken. One member can die or desert. Resident males
or females can have their nest sites taken over by other swallows. Watch for
desertions and takeover attempts.
Questions for the next Topic: Nest Building.
- What is the purpose of a nest? Why have one?
- Have the Tree Swallows finished building their nests?
- If they haven't finished, or have barely started, what's taking them so long?
Learn About Birds at Tree Swallow Nest Box Projects
|Nesting Guide, Spring Return, Songbird Behavior, Song and Calls, Nest Site Claiming,
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