ATTENTION: If you are concerned because you have one or more nestlings
that is significantly smaller than its nestmates, or if there has been a
prolonged period of bad weather, or if you have nestlings you believe may
need human intervention in order to survive, please read and consider the
possible options below:
Fostering Tree Swallow Nestlings
Hand-Feeding Tree Swallow Nestlings in the Field
Temporary Care of Tree Swallow Nestlings
At the Project:
There are small nestlings in almost every box now. When you check nests you may
have to take them out to get an accurate count, so you might as well examine them.
Slip your fingers gently under each and lift. Sure, you'll be defecated on, but don't
miss opportunities for close-up looks at nestling growth and development. They won't
be small for long.
Also, watch for changes in nestling and adult behavior.
Warning! If you plan to have your nestlings banded your bander must wait until
they are 11-12 days old, not younger and not older!
How are the nestlings changing?
- They are growing very rapidly.
- Their body proportions are changing. Their wings are becoming larger and
abdomens smaller relative to the rest of their bodies.
- They are gaining weight at an explosive rate. Between days 4 and 7, when
growth rate is highest, they may gain 2.5 grams per day, and when their weight
levels off by about day 12-13 they will have reached 15 times their hatching
weight and may outweigh their parents.
- However, nestling weight can swing up and down due to weather variations that
affect food supplies. Cold, wet and excessive wind may reduce weight gains.
- Bad weather can also cause slower feather growth because if parents aren't
able to supply enough food, more of each nestling's energy must be diverted
from growth to thermoregulation.
- In the pictures below observe the changes as nestlings grow.
- Note how strips on their bodies darken between hatching and day 6. These
are "feather tracts" where feather follicles are rapidly growing.
- "Contour feathers" that will cover their bodies start to emerge at day 6 or 7.
By about day 15 or 16 their bodies will appear fully feathered.
- "Flight feathers" of wings and tail, looking like quills at first, begin poking
through the skin of wings and tails by about day 6 or 7. At this age these
feathers are surrounded by waxy sheaths that protect them as they grow out
from the pit-like follicles.
- By about day 10 to12 wing and tail feathers that have partially erupted from
their sheaths resemble little paintbrushes (see the tail feathers below). These
flight feathers should be completely erupted by day 16 or so, and will continue
to elongate through fledging and beyond.
- Gradually, between about day five and day ten, eyes open from tiny slits to fully
wide (see below). Now nestlings can use sight as well as sound and touch to
sense when adults are arriving with food.
- Click here for a YouTube video showing many of the physical changes
undergone by Francois Paquette''s Quebec Tree Swallow nestlings as they
grow between day 1 and day 12 after hatching.
Are nestlings' feathers the same color as adults'?
- No, nestlings are acquiring a unique "juvenile plumage," which they only
have for the first few months of their lives.
- Juvenile upper bodies will be sooty gray with no iridescent blue or green.
- Wings and tails will be dark gray.
- Under bodies will be duller white than adults'.
- Some juveniles will show a very faint gray chest band.
How is nestling behavior changing?
- They are becoming more and more active, shifting position often.
- They are more squirmy when handled.
- The simple begging peeps they once gave have become much louder, more
persistent, and complex as they compete with one another for food.
- They still huddle together but spill out of the nest cup before long.
- As they get larger they begin to preen erupting feathers, and stretch their
Are all young in a nest about the same size and state of development?
- In some nests they are, but in others one or more nestlings may be lagging
- The nestling at right in the picture below is noticeably smaller.
Where do you think a nestling that is smaller than its nestmates may have
been in the clutch's egg laying and hatching order?
- If it was from the last egg laid and was the last hatched by a day, it started with
a size disadvantage. It may not be able to compete well for food with its older,
larger nestmates, and if food supplies become short it may die.
- Individual nestlings can also lag due to disease, injury, or genetic weakness.
Who feeds the nestlings; males, females, or both?
- Normally both feed nestlings, with females tending to bring food a bit more
often, although individual rates can vary.
- However, if one parent dies or deserts there will be less food for the young at
- Also, if a male successfully claims two nest sites and has a female and young in
both (this happens occasionally), he usually concentrates his feeding efforts at
one nest. The burden of feeding young at the other nest falls mostly or entirely
on its female.
- Feeding a full brood is normally too difficult for single adults, and smaller,
weaker young in one-parent nests often starve.
Is the rate adults enter the boxes changing as young grow in size?
- Research has shown that 95% of adult visits to boxes containing nestlings
involve feeding the young.
- Feeding rates increase as small nestlings grow rapidly. Their larger bodies
require more food, and adults have to work harder and harder to satisfy them.
- Seeking and capturing flying insects, and bringing this food to a brood of
growing nestlings for 18-22 days straight is extremely stressful for adult. The
metabolic rates of female Tree Swallows provisioning young has been found to
average five times higher than their basal metabolic rates!
- Rates of feeding young reach a peak by about day 8 and then remain at this
level until late in the nestling period when feeding rates taper off.
- Nests with more young show higher feeding rates by both males and females
than nests with few young, but adults seldom are able to increase feeding in
direct proportion to number of young. So nestlings in large broods tend to get
fed fewer total food items per hour.
Does brood number effect rate of growth and development?
- Yes, young with few nestmates typically develop faster than those with many
because they receive more food per hour than young in large broods.
As the young swallows grow in size, and as their insulating feathers develop,
is heat from their mother's brooding still needed?
- For at least a week after hatching the nestlings are not large enough either as
individuals or huddled together in a ball to keep themselves sufficiently warm.
- However, by about day 8 or 9 they are usually large enough and becoming
feathered enough to maintain their own body heat, to thermoregulate.
- By this time it also becomes impossible for the female adult to longer cover
them all with her brood patch.
- Daytime brooding normally ends by day 10, but females may continue to sleep
overnight with their young for several days, especially during cold, wet spells.
- Click here for a video showing how a female Tree Swallow in Francois
Paquette's nest box, changes her brooding behavior as her nestlings grow.
Have you noticed changes in how adults approach and enter boxes?
- As nestlings grow the need for speedy, efficient transfer of food from adult to
young increases. Time lost is time adults can't forage.
- Females now approach and enter boxes quickly and directly, swooping to hole
and ducking inside in a single fluid motion.
- Males may hesitate, often perching at the hole briefly before entering.
What other changes do you notice in the behavior of adults?
- As more efforts focus on feeding growing nestlings, adults have less time for
- There is less perching and body maintenance, less box guarding, and fewer
songs and calls.
- One call that is commonly heard is the "Gurgle" or Contact Call, given by
adults as they relieve each other at the nest or as they near the hole before
entering. The Gurgle seems to alert an adult at the box to the other's
approach, so that relieving occurs efficiently. It also informs nestlings inside
the box that adult with food is arriving.
- Adults aren't together much now, especially after females stop daytime
Have you noticed adults carrying out "fecal sacs" in their mouths?
- "Fecal sacs" are tough, flexible, gelatinous membranes enclosing a songbird
- They seem to make it easier for adults to remove wastes from nests.
- Nestlings usually produce a fecal sac immediately after being fed, almost as a
reflex; in one end and out the other!
- The nestling that was fed usually turns around, backs up, and ejects a fecal
sac, which is grabbed at once by the adult for removal.
- Adult songbirds, including Tree Swallows, may actually eat the fecal sacs of
small nestlings. However, sacs of larger nestlings are usually removed and
dropped away from the nest (see below in the photo by Brett Burleigh).
- You should be able to see adult swallows carrying white fecal sacs suddenly
dip their heads in flight, opening their bills to drop the sac.
- Click here to watch a cool in-box video of adult Tree Swallows disposing of
fecal sacs after feeding their young.
Why are fecal sacs removed?
Questions for the next Topic: Mortality.
- Sanitation is probably the main reason. Harmful germs could grow in soiled
- Predators could be attracted by smell of accumulated wastes.
- Nestling feathers smeared by waste could lose their insulating value.
- Have you noted dead or missing nestlings when checking boxes?
- What could kill nestling songbirds?
- How have you tried to prevent swallow mortality?
Learn About Birds at Tree Swallow Nest Box Projects
Hatch 3 Days 6 Days
9 Days 12 Days
|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