Violet-green Swallow Kauturyaraq

by Frank Keim

original artwork by Frank Keim

Take a close look at this swallow. Notice its long wings and white “saddle bags,” and the glossy quality of its plumage, sparkling with iridescent emerald green and metallic purple in the bright sun.

This swallow almost magically changes color in the sun, and might fool you into thinking it’s a Tree swallow, its close cousin. Its face, though, is painted white, even around the eyes, its hind end is purple rather than blue, and its topknot is the same emerald green color as its wings and back.

That said, when you see both species flying so nimbly around and above you, they almost seem to be the same bird. And, like the Tree swallow, the Violet-green makes its nest in a cavity. So this may be why I have not found a specific Yup’ik name for the Violet-green swallow. It is possible, though, that, since both these species and the Bank swallow make their nests in cavities, all three of them are called Kauturyaraq, which translates loosely as “one that nests in a small cavity.”

After spending the winter as far south as Nicaragua in Central America, Violet-green swallows arrive in the LYK Delta sometime in late April. They immediately go into a feeding frenzy to fatten up for mating and laying eggs, and will eat any small insect they can find while flying, and even swoop down above pothole lakes or rivers to eat surface insects, crustaceans and insect larvae that may be swimming near the top of the water.

When they’ve finally recuperated from the rigors of their long migration north, they begin their courting rituals in preparation for nesting. While performing aerial gyrations, the male actively pursues a mate by singing repeatedly a sweet courtship song that sounds something like tsip tseet tsip (also sung at night before sunrise).

When both birds make their choice they immediately begin to search for a cavity or crevice in a tree or rocky crag where they will build their nest. Once they find a comfortable old woodpecker hole, let’s say, they both gather grass stems, small twigs, rootlets and feathers to build a loose, shallow cup nest at the bottom of the hole.

Up to six small eggs are laid and, as with all cavity nesters, they are pure white. Incubation by the female until the eggs hatch is about two weeks, and it takes another two weeks for the nestlings to confidently spread their wings and leap from the edge of their high hole into the wild blue yonder. Then the fun begins.

They imitate their parents in all they do, and join with other young birds and their parents in large groups, often with different swallow species, capturing insects on the wing over bodies of water, marshlands and forests. Their flocks often number in the hundreds, and their ability to fly swiftly and with great maneuverability are strategies that serve as deterrents to aerial predators such as Peregrine and other falcon species. These qualities are recognized in their Greek and Latin scientific name, Tachycineta Thalassina, which mean, “swiftly moving, glossy sea-green colored bird.”

It’s interesting that, like other cavity-nesters, Violet-greens often have more parasites on their feathers than birds that nest in the open. To control their infestations, they sunbathe and preen frequently.

Although Violet-green swallows are common in the western and northwestern parts of the U.S., including Alaska, their overall numbers have declined significantly. Like other winged insectivores, including all swallow species, the use of neonicotinoid insecticides by farmers and others everywhere has been the main reason for this decline. Climate change and pollution have been other factors, but the bottom line is that because insect populations have plummeted, so have bird numbers.

For those who love to listen to birds sing and watch them pirouette in the air with total disregard for the laws of gravity, this is sad. And it is why we must work as hard as we can to protect all birds and their habitat from those who would destroy them.