Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Uneasy Neighbors

As the trail at the Shiawassee NRW finally reached the Titabawassee River we saw swallows swooping and swerving over the water. Down along the river bank path we came across some bluebird boxes, complete with bluebirds.

Upon the neighboring box sat a tree swallow.

Tree swallows are known for taking over bluebird boxes, and, along with starlings and house sparrows, have earned a bad reputation for doing so. I never really understood this, as tree swallows are a native like the bluebird, (unlike the house sparrow and starling, both of which came from Europe), and seem to me to be equally deserving of nesting sites.

These two are checking the place out.

I have seen other birds, cardinals for instance, that will feed each other I would guess as part of a mating ritual. I have only seen the male feeding the female, as if to say, "look at what a good father I can be!" as it is after all the female who chooses with whom to mate. At first I thought that is what was going on here, but now that I look more closely at these photos it looks like a male above and the female below, so I don't really know what is going on here. Perhaps they aren't even mates.

I was curious about this nesting competition with bluebirds and the anger some people feel towards the three swallows, so I did a little research about it. Turns out there are plenty of others who don't quite understand the vitriol some reserve for the tree swallow, and feel it is ill placed. Bluebird numbers are quite healthy, and yes it is thanks in part to the folks who put up bluebird boxes all over the Eastern US. But historically (and we're talking pre-European settlers) much of the east was not great habitat for the bluebird. It was densely forested, and the bluebird needs open land in order to hunt for it's prey. Numbers soared in the 1800's as we cleared the land for farms, but then fell thanks to the introduction of the house sparrow and the starling. Numbers declined further with the use of pesticides that killed off the bluebird's main food source.

But now, estimates put bluebird numbers on par with tree swallows. After watching the swallows scooping up bugs over the river I would be more than happy to have them nesting in boxes at my house! However, as one who is trying in vain to establish native vegetation on my property only to have it munched down to the ground by white-tail deer, I understand the frustration one can feel when they have a certain goal in mind but are thwarted again and again by Nature, who generally has a plan all its own--or no plan at all.

But don't worry too much about the bluebirds. They can fend for themselves.


  1. Your photos are amazing. It's like I'm into their little lives. And I hadn't given much thought to bluebird boxes before, knew they existed but didn't know why. Kinda sad to know the birds had such forested areas once upon a time. Here, builders keep squeezing land from the deer and the deer keep munching closer to houses. Many people put out apples/corn in the winter. But you're in a more open area. Perhaps you could wrap some wire until the vegetation takes...a win-win for both later as the vegetation will be thicker and so on. Lovely post, Marie.

  2. Marie, I welcome both the bluebirds and tree swallows each year. I have boxes about twenty feet apart and I usually get one of each bird in a box. The song of the tree swallows sounds like babbling water to me. I love it. Both birds are desirable and have their place in nature. Terry Ryan-Mitlyng