You may have heard of “lining” bees – following one honeybee after another, tracking them to their honey-laden hive. Recently I lined Cliff Swallows. My initial observation was of several swallows on a mud flat in the middle of a river, loading their beaks with mud and taking flight, all in the same direction. Knowing that their nests are made of mud pellets (900-1,200 of them), I knew that they must be nesting somewhere in the vicinity. The length of time between their departure from and return to the mud flat was quite short, so I deduced that the distance they were carrying the mud and depositing it couldn’t be too great. After heading off in the direction that the swallows were flying, I eventually discovered the very beginning of a colony of Cliff Swallow nests under the eaves of a nearby barn.
The building of a nest requires not only finding a source of mud, but also ferrying lumps of it (in their beaks) back to the nest site many, many times. Once a source has been found, its location is made known to all members of the colony, and they all make use of it. Cliff Swallows belonging to the same colony not only use the same source of mud, but gather it together as a group, and return to work on their nests all at the same time. They work in roughly half-hour shifts, after which they all take a break and forage for insects for ten minutes or so before resuming work.
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The nesting habits of Cliff Swallows are fairly unusual in that these swallows are colonial nesters. Here in the East you can find 20 or 30 of their nests under a bridge or the eaves of a barn (and occasionally on cliffs). In the West, colonies consist of up to 3,500 nests! The construction of their gourd-shaped nest requires between 900 and 1,200 trips to mud puddles or stream banks, where they gather a mouthful of mud in the form of a pellet. Often two swallows will build nests side-by-side, sharing the wall of mud that separates them. Unfortunately, according to the most recent Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas, the Cliff Swallow population in Vermont has declined by 48% in the past 25 years, a fact which is attributed to competition with House Sparrows, a decline in insects due to diminishing farm land, and destruction of nests by humans. These birds are more important insect predators than ever, with the bat population having suffered such a decline recently due to white-nose syndrome.