Tree swallow

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Tree swallow
Tree swallow at Stroud Preserve.jpg
At Stroud Preserve in West Chester, Pennsylvania, US
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Hirundinidae
Genus: Tachycineta
Species: T. bicolor
Binomial name
Tachycineta bicolor
(Vieillot, 1808)
Tree Swallow-rangemap.gif
Range of T. bicolor       Breeding summer visitor     Migration visitor      Winter visitor

Iridoprocne bicolor

The tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) is a migratory passerine bird that breeds in North America and winters in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. It is a very rare vagrant to western Europe.

Taxonomy and etymology[edit]

The tree swallow is usually placed in the genus Tachycineta,[2] although it is sometimes placed in the genus Iridoprocne, along with the mangrove swallow, white-rumped swallow, white-winged swallow, and Chilean swallow.[3]

The generally accepted genus name is from Ancient Greek takhykinetos, "moving quickly", and the specific bicolor is Latin and means "two-coloured".[4] The other genus name, Iridoprocne, comes from the Greek iris, meaning rainbow, and Procne, a figure who supposedly turned into a swallow.[5]


This swallow has a length between about 12 and 14 cm (4.7 and 5.5 in) and a weight of approximately 17 to 25.5 g (0.60 to 0.90 oz). The male has mostly glossy blue-green upperparts, with the wings and tail being blackish. The underparts[2] and the cheek patch are white,[6] although the underwing coverts are grey-brown. The female can be differentiated from the male as the former is duller, and sometimes has a brown forehead. In addition, first-year females have brown upperparts, with a variable number of blue feathers. Second-year females sometimes retain some of this brown feathering. The juveniles can be distinguished be their brown upperparts and grey-brown washed breast.[2]


The tree swallow's alarm call is a "peeh" or "pee-deeh";[2] this call can serve to silence older nestlings that are begging while a predator is near.[7]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

The tree swallow breeds in North America. Its range extends to north-central Alaska and up to the tree limit in Canada. It is found as far south as Tennessee in the eastern part of its range, California and New Mexico in the west, and Kansas in the centre. It occasionally breeds further south in the United States (US).[6] The wintering range is primarily southern US coasts and south, along the Gulf Coast, to Panama and the Northwestern coast of South America, in addition to being found in the West Indies.[2] When a swallow returns to nest, it usually does not change breeding sites.[8]

The habitat of this swallow is primarily in open and wooded areas, especially those near water. The fact that it is able to habitate open areas is due to the construction of nest boxes in such regions.[6]


Flying in Central New York, US

Being highly social outside of the breeding season, tree swallows may form flocks of several thousand birds near roost sites.[9] Flocks near Vacherie, Louisiana, were estimated to contain well over 1 million birds during December 2009.[10]



The tree swallow usually renests in the same area to breed again; only about 14% of females and 4% of males disperse to breed at a new site per year. This dispersal, although, is influenced by breeding success; about 28% of breeders disperse after they fail to fledge a chick, compared to the 5% that disperse when they are successful. Most do not disperse far, usually breeding at sites less than 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) away from their original grounds.[8] The nest is found in pre-existing holes, usually in trees and artificial structures such as pipes and fence posts, and in nestboxes.[2] The nest hole is, on average, 3.4 metres (11 ft) above ground level, although about 45% of them are less than 2 metres (6.6 ft) above the ground.[11] Nests are usually spaced 10 to 15 metres (33 to 49 ft) apart,[2] and those that are closer in distance are usually further apart in terms of laying date.[12] The nest cup itself is made from grass, moss, pine needles, and aquatic plants, and lined with feathers, all of which are collected mostly by the female.[2]

Eggs are laid from early May to mid-June and chicks fledge between mid-June and July. When the eggs are laid is influenced by latitude,[2] age of the female, and wing length of the female.[13] On average, birds in the southern part of the breeding range breed earlier than those in the northern portion.[2] The female's wing length and age are both inversely correlated with the timing of breeding.[13] It generally lays when the temperature and the abundance of food (that the female can catch) are good enough for females to start laying eggs. These observations support the theory that the tree swallow is an income breeder (breeding based on food conditions during the laying season).[14] This species is generally socially monogamous, but up to 8% of breeding males are polygynous.[2] Polygyny is influenced by territory: males having territories with nestboxes at least 5 metres (16 ft) apart are more likely to be polygynous. It is suggested that this polygyny depends on the conditions during the laying season: better conditions, such as an abundance of food, allow females in polygyny who do not receive help in foraging to lay more eggs.[15]

The tree swallow has high rates of extra-pair paternity, with 38% to 69% of nestlings being a product of extra-pair paternity, and 50% to 87% of broods containing at least one nestling that was the result of an extra-pair copulation.[2] One factor that might contribute to this is that females have control over copulation, making paternity guards ineffective.[16] Extra-pair paternity does not change the level of parental care the male contributes in the tree swallow, contrary to other birds. The tree swallow also differs in terms of the composition of extra-pair fathers; in a study that found the paternity of 35 extra-pair nestlings, it was determined that 25 extra-pair young were from fathers from sites near the nest where the female is, about 3 from sites within 2 kilometres (1.2 mi), and 7 that had fathers that were floaters (those present at breeding grounds that presumably do not breed). In the tree swallow, floating thus helps males in good condition produce more chicks, while allowing males in bad condition to be successful through parental care.[17]

How extra-pair fathers are chosen and why females even breed with other males (because they can control copulation) is controversial. One theory, called the genetic compatibility hypothesis, states that increased offspring fitness results from increased heterozygosity, and thus that female tree swallows would prefer to mate with those that have more different alleles from them. This theory is justified on the basis that young produced from extra-pair mates usually are more heterozygous than within-pair offspring. In additional support of this theory, females are likely able to judge, after copulation, whether or not a male's sperm is of high quality and whether she should allow it to impregnate her.[18] Another theory, called the good genes theory, says that females choose extra-pair males based on if they have good genes that would influence survival and mating success. This is supported on the basis that it is able to explain why some tree swallows do not have any extra-pair young, whereas others do.[16] Although this is true, there is criticism for a lack of phenotypic difference between extra-pair males and pair-bonded males. But, there are results that may be in support of this theory. For example, in a 2007 study, it was found that in increased plumage brightness and increased age in extra-pair males, together, increased the number of extra-pair young.[19]

Courtship for the tree swallow starts with a male attacking an unknown female; this can be stimulated by the female doing a wing-fluttering flight, which is possibly an invitation to court. The male may then take a vertical posture, with a raised tail, slightly spread, and with wings slightly drooped. This stimulates the female to try and land on the male's back, but he flies to prevent this; this is repeated. After the male courts the female, he flies to his chosen nest site, and the female inspects it. The pair bond takes time to develop. During copulation, the male hovers over the female, and then mounts her, giving aggression calls. He then makes cloacal contact with the female while holding her neck feathers in his bill and standing on her slightly outstretched wings. Copulation occurs multiple times.[6]

A tree swallow nest with a clutch of four eggs.

The tree swallow lays a clutch of two to eight, although usually four to seven,[2] pure white, and translucent at laying, eggs that measure about 19 by 14 centimetres (7.5 by 5.5 in).[20] These eggs are incubated by the female,[2] usually after the second-to-last egg is laid,[21] for 11 to 20 days,[20] although most hatch after 14 to 15 days.[2] They hatch slightly asynchronously, with an average of 28 hours between the time of the first and final egg is laid. The laying order predicts the hatching order, with eggs generally hatching in the order they were laid. When a brood hatches asynchronously, a weight hierarchy is established, with nestlings hatched earlier weighing more than those hatched later. This allows for the female to prioritize which chick to give food to in times of food shortage, although this weight difference is less pronounced about 12 days into nesting, suggesting that this brood-reduction only has a significant effect early in the nestling period.[21] Infanticide of the chicks and eggs sometimes occurs when a male is replaced by another male. Infanticide usually does not occur when the clutch is not complete, as replacement males then have a chance to fertilize at least one egg. When the male arrives during incubation, it sometimes commits infanticide, but other times adopts the eggs, as there is a chance that some eggs were sired from the replacement male. If the replacement male arrives after the chicks hatch, however, infanticide is usually committed, though the female will sometimes prevent this.[22]

The sex ratio of the hatchlings is male biased in females of better condition, and these males produced by the females in better condition are themselves in better condition. This is hypothesized to be because males have more variability in reproductive success, thus meaning a female in better condition will produce a male in better condition that may have better reproductive success (more than that of a female of similar condition).[23]

Nestling tree swallows are able to thermoregulate at a capacity of 75% compared to the adult at an average age of 9.5 days when out of the nest, and from nine to four days when in the nest (depending on the size of the brood).[24]


The tree swallow forages 0 to 50 metres (160 ft) above the ground singly or in groups. Its flight is a mix of flapping and gliding. During the breeding season, this is mostly within 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) of the nest site. When it is foraging for nestlings, although, it usually goes up to 200 metres (660 ft) from the nest,[2] mostly staying in sight of it, and forages at a height up to 12 metres (39 ft).[25] In addition to being caught in flight,[6] insects are sometimes taken from the ground, water, vegetation, and vertical surfaces.[2]

The tree swallow eats mostly insects, with some molluscs, spiders, and fruit. In North America, flies make up about 40% of the diet, with beetles and ants supplementing it. Otherwise, the diet is about 90% flies. The seed and berry food is mainly from the genus Myrica, which is mainly taken in the all four of the Northern Hemisphere seasons except summer. Crustaceans were also found to be important in the wintering diet in a study on Long Island, New York.[2]

Both sexes feed the nestlings, although the male feeds the chicks less than the females.[2] The hatching order affects how much a chick is fed; last-hatched nestlings (in cases where hatching is asynchronous) are likely fed less than those hatched earlier.[26] Nestlings closer to the entrance of the nest are also more likely to be fed, as are those who started begging first.[27] The diet itself is composed mostly of insects, with insects in the orders Diptera, Hemiptera, and Odonata making up most of the diet.[2] These insects are mostly up to 10 millimetres (0.39 in) in size, but sometimes are up to 60 millimetres (2.4 in) in length.[25] In nests near lakes acidified by humans, calcium supplements, primarily fish bones, crayfish exoskeletons, clam shells, and the shells of bird eggs, are more important in the diet of nestlings. To get these calcium supplements, the adult tree swallow travels further than usual; sometimes up to 650 metres (2,130 ft) away from the nest.[28]


The tree swallow is vulnerable to various parasites, such as the blood parasite Trypanosoma. It is also susceptible to the flea Ceratophyllus idius and the feather mites Pteronyssoides tyrrelli, Trouessartia, and (likely) Hemialges. It is also probably afflicted by lice of the genera Brueelia and Myrsidea. There is a correlation between the number of fleas on a bird and the number of young it is caring for. This relationship is speculated to be a cause of an improved microclimate for fleas due to a larger clutch.[29]


The tree swallow is considered to be least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This is due to the bird's large range of about 834,000 square kilometres (322,000 sq mi),[1] and its stable population, estimated to be about 20,000,000 individuals. In some parts of the United States, the range of this swallow has extended South, likely due to changes in land use, the reintroduction of beavers, and nestboxes installed for bluebirds. Tree swallows are negatively impacted by the clearing of forests, and there is a documented impact of the reduction of marshes, which reduce the habitat available for wintering. The tree swallow also has to compete for nest sites with the common starling and house sparrow, both introduced to North America.[2] Acid rain that acidifies lakes can force it to go relatively long distances to find calcium-rich items, and it can result in it eating some plastic.[28] Other chemicals, like pesticides and other pollutants, can become highly concentrated in eggs, and PCBs are associated with the abandonment of a pair's clutch.[2]


  1. ^ a b BirdLife International (2012). "Tachycineta bicolor". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Turner, A. (2017). del Hoyo, Josep; Elliott, Andrew; Sargatal, Jordi; Christie, David A.; de Juana, Eduardo, eds. "Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)". Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Barcelona, Spain: Lynx Edicions. Retrieved 10 December 2017. (Subscription required (help)). 
  3. ^ Turner, Angela (2017). del Hoyo, Josep; Elliott, Andrew; Sargatal, Jordi; Christie, David A.; de Juana, Eduardo, eds. "White-rumped Swallow (Tachycineta leucorrhoa)". Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions. Retrieved January 14, 2017. (Subscription required (help)). 
  4. ^ Jobling, James A (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. pp. 72, 377. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4. 
  5. ^ Coues, Elliott (1882). The Coues Check List of North American Birds. Boston: Estes and Lauriat. p. 42. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Turner, Angela (2010). A Handbook to the Swallows and Martins of the World. London: A & C Black. pp. 97–100. ISBN 978-1-4081-3172-5. 
  7. ^ McIntyre, Emma; Horn, Andrew G.; Leonard, Marty L. (2014). "Do nestling tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) respond to parental alarm calls?". The Auk. 131 (3): 314–320. doi:10.1642/AUK-13-235.1. ISSN 0004-8038. 
  8. ^ a b Winkler, David W.; Wrege, Peter H.; Allen, Paul E.; Kast, Tracey L.; Senesac, Pixie; Wasson, Matthew F.; Llambías, Paulo E.; Ferretti, Valentina; Sullivan, Patrick J. (2004). "Breeding dispersal and philopatry in the tree swallow". The Condor. 106 (4): 768. doi:10.1650/7634. ISSN 0010-5422. 
  9. ^ Animal Diversity Web: Tree Swallow
  10. ^ Ed Cullen. Millions of tree swallows swirl down in Vacherie. AP Louisiana News. Posted 19 December 2009.
  11. ^ Rendell, Wallace B.; Robertson, Raleigh J. (1989). "Nest-site characteristics, reproductive success and cavity availability for tree swallows breeding in natural cavities". The Condor. 91 (4): 875. doi:10.2307/1368072. ISSN 0010-5422. 
  12. ^ Muldal, Alison; Gibbs, H. Lisle; Robertson, Raleigh J. (1985). "Preferred nest spacing of an obligate cavity-nesting bird, the tree swallow". The Condor. 87 (3): 356–363. doi:10.2307/1367216. ISSN 0010-5422. 
  13. ^ a b Winkler, David W.; Allen, Paul E. (1996). "The seasonal decline in tree swallow clutch size: physiological constraint or strategic adjustment?". Ecology. 77 (3): 922–932. doi:10.2307/2265512. ISSN 0012-9658. 
  14. ^ Nooker, Jacqueline K.; Dunn, Peter O.; Whittingham, Linda A. (2005). "Effects of food abundance, weather, and female condition on reproduction in tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor)". The Auk. 122 (4): 1225. doi:10.1642/0004-8038(2005)122[1225:EOFAWA]2.0.CO;2. ISSN 0004-8038. 
  15. ^ Dunn, Peter O.; Hannon, Susan J. (1992). "Effects of food abundance and male parental care on reproductive success and monogamy in tree swallows". The Auk. 109 (3): 488–499. ISSN 0004-8038. 
  16. ^ a b Lifjeld, Jan T.; Dunn, Peter O.; Robertson, Raleigh J.; Boag, Peter T. (1993). "Extra-pair paternity in monogamous tree swallows". Animal Behaviour. 45 (2): 213–229. doi:10.1006/anbe.1993.1028. ISSN 0003-3472. 
  17. ^ Kempenaers, Bart; Everding, Susie; Bishop, Cheryl; Boag, Peter; Robertson, Raleigh J. (2001). "Extra-pair paternity and the reproductive role of male floaters in the tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)". Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. 49 (4): 251–259. doi:10.1007/s002650000305. ISSN 0340-5443. 
  18. ^ Stapleton, Mary K.; Kleven, Oddmund; Lifjeld, Jan T.; Robertson, Raleigh J. (2007). "Female tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) increase offspring heterozygosity through extrapair mating". Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. 61 (11): 1725–1733. doi:10.1007/s00265-007-0404-4. ISSN 0340-5443. 
  19. ^ Bitton, Pierre-Paul; O'Brien, Erin L.; Dawson, Russell D. (2007). "Plumage brightness and age predict extrapair fertilization success of male tree swallows, Tachycineta bicolor". Animal Behaviour. 74 (6): 1777–1784. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2007.03.018. ISSN 0003-3472. 
  20. ^ a b Hauber, Mark E. (1 August 2014). The Book of Eggs: A Life-Size Guide to the Eggs of Six Hundred of the World's Bird Species. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 448. ISBN 978-0-226-05781-1. 
  21. ^ a b Clotfelter, Ethan D.; Whittingham, Linda A.; Dunn, Peter O. (2000). "Laying order, hatching asynchrony and nestling body mass in tree swallows Tachycineta bicolor". Journal of Avian Biology. 31 (3): 329–334. doi:10.1034/j.1600-048X.2000.310308.x. ISSN 0908-8857. 
  22. ^ Robertson, Raleigh J. (1990). "Tactics and counter-tactics of sexually selected infanticide in tree swallows". Population Biology of Passerine Birds: An Integrated Approach. NATO ASI Series: 381–390. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-75110-3_32. 
  23. ^ Whittingham, Linda A.; Dunn, Peter O. (2000). "Offspring sex ratios in tree swallows: females in better condition produce more sons". Molecular Ecology. 9 (8): 1123–1129. doi:10.1046/j.1365-294x.2000.00980.x. ISSN 0962-1083. 
  24. ^ Dunn, Erica H. (1979). "Age of effective homeothermy in nestling tree swallows according to brood size". The Wilson Bulletin. 91 (3): 455–457. ISSN 0043-5643. 
  25. ^ a b McCarty, John P.; Winkler, David W. (1999). "Foraging ecology and diet selectivity of tree swallows feeding nestlings". The Condor. 101 (2): 246–254. doi:10.2307/1369987. ISSN 0010-5422. 
  26. ^ Johnson, L. Scott; Wimmers, Larry E.; Campbell, Sara; Hamilton, Lucy (2003). "Growth rate, size, and sex ratio of last-laid, last-hatched offspring in the tree swallow Tachycineta bicolor". Journal of Avian Biology. 34 (1): 35–43. doi:10.1034/j.1600-048X.2003.02950.x. ISSN 0908-8857. 
  27. ^ Whittingham, Linda A; Dunn, Peter O; Clotfelter, Ethan D (2003). "Parental allocation of food to nestling tree swallows: the influence of nestling behaviour, sex and paternity". Animal Behaviour. 65 (6): 1203–1210. doi:10.1006/anbe.2003.2178. ISSN 0003-3472. 
  28. ^ a b St. Louis, Vincent L.; Breebaart, Loes (1991). "Calcium supplements in the diet of nestling tree swallows near acid sensitive lakes". The Condor. 93 (2): 286–294. doi:10.2307/1368944. ISSN 0010-5422. 
  29. ^ Shutler, Dave; Mullie, Adele; Clark, Robert G (2004). "Tree swallow reproductive investment, stress, and parasites". Canadian Journal of Zoology. 82 (3): 442–448. doi:10.1139/z04-016. ISSN 0008-4301. 

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