Today was a cold blustery day, on the heels of some severe weekend storms. I went down to check on our prairie (five inches of rain, strong winds, and a tornado a few miles away) and was glad to see everything looked wet but ok – including the cattle.
As I walked through the prairie, I noticed some barn swallows flying and hovering just above the surface of the wetland/pond. Since the temperature was in the low 40’s and the winds were howling above 30 mph, I didn’t think there was any chance there were flying insects for them to catch and eat, so I wondered what they were up to. As I watched the swallows, I realized they weren’t just wasting energy, but instead appeared to be feeding by picking insects (I assume) off the surface of the water. It was lightly raining and I’d left my camera in the truck, so I didn’t take any pictures, but I’d never seen nor heard of such behavior before.
About a half hour later, I had just left the prairie and was starting home when I saw a big mixed flock of cliff and barn swallows behaving very similarly in a flooded wetland about a mile from our prairie. The rain had stopped by this time, so I pulled over and got a few mediocre photographs.
When I got back to town, I did a little quick research and found that this kind of feeding behavior has been seen before – it was just new to me. However, I also remembered a long cold period in May back in 1996, during which scientists documented mass deaths of swallows from starvation. At the time, I remember being told that the birds starved because of a lack of flying insects to eat during the cold spell. I wonder why those swallows died but the ones I saw today (two different species a mile apart) appeared to be finding food…? I also wonder if they were catching enough food to cover the energy costs of doing so?
It’s a good day when I can learn something new AND come up with questions I can’t answer. Anyone out there have answers for me?