When the icy fingers of winter begin to stretch across the Australian landscape southern populations of Welcome Swallows, Hirundo neoxena, generally migrate to northern regions of the country. When they return south to their old haunts it’s a sign that spring has returned, and in cold climates that’s a very welcome event indeed.

Welcome Swallows can be seen, at some time or another, in most areas of the continent, although they generally steer clear of northern and north-eastern regions of the country and the most arid of its deserts. They’ve been the winners rather than the losers as humans have continued to inflict dramatic changes on the landscape, and their reward has been a range of new habitats that have allowed their population to increase. These are not birds that favour dense forests, and land clearing practices have created the open habitat that they prefer, and with bridges, tunnels, road culverts, and buildings all providing ideal nesting sites, Welcome Swallows are as happy in an urban environment as termites in the rotting timbers of an outback dunny.

Large flocks can often be seen performing elegant aerial displays as they pursue flying insects among city buildings, over waterways, lakes, and wetlands, in agricultural areas, and across grasslands, and occasionally they venture out to sea in pursuit of their prey. It was their presence above the ocean waves that provided another logical basis for their colloquial name, for sailors whose vessels travelled at the whims of the wind knew that swallows would never be too far from land, and dry land was always a welcome sight.

The Welcome Swallow looks its best in sunlight, when the metallic blue-black feathers of its head, back, and wings sparkle and shine. Its reddish orange forehead, throat, and upper breast create a dazzling contrast to its less gaudy light grey under parts, and it adds another touch of glamour to its attire with a long forked tail that has two even longer narrow feathers trailing behind it. Both males and females, with their dark grey bills and legs, are of a similar appearance, but young birds have little to brag about, for although they sport some glossy black feathers, they have only creamy white colouring on the forehead and throat, and have shorter and thus less impressive tails than adults.

They feast on a great variety of insects that they catch in flight, and each tasty morsel is guided into the bird’s gaping mouth with the help of short bristles on each side of the bill that also protect the bird’s eyes from any damage that might be caused by struggling victims and their flapping wings.

Many Welcome Swallows are creatures of habit and, with a long-term partner, they return to the same nesting site year after year, and there are plenty of sheltered locations on offer that humans have created seemingly for the birds’ convenience. The swallows glue their cup-shaped mud nests to the walls of both natural caves and city buildings, onto the rafters of farm sheds, suburban bus shelters, and the high roofs suspended over the bowsers of service stations, and onto the supporting framework beneath bridges.

The female alone takes on the patient task of incubating her eggs, but her mate lends a hand to care for the chicks, and with two broods frequently raised each season, there are always plenty of hungry mouths to be fed.

The above text and images are the copyright of Stephanie Jackson and cannot be used in any form with written authorisation.

Photos of Australia background image