Follow up to my earlier Swallows-on-Cold-Days Post

I posted earlier this week about swallows feeding from the surface of water bodies during a cold and windy day.  In that post, I included a link to a report on a mass die off of swallows and intriguing research on some rapid evolution of swallow body and wing sizes by Mary Bomberger Brown at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.  I intended to follow up with Mary to get more information, but she beat me to it and contacted me first!  I asked for permission to share what she told me, and she agreed.

This is what Mary had to add to my short blog post:

This sort of foraging behavior is fairly common in the swallows, especially at this time of year when the birds are transitioning from migration to nesting. All of the swallows that occur in Nebraska (Bank, Barn, Cliff, Purple Martin, Tree, and Violet-green) do it. They are picking insects off the surface of the water—insects just emerging as flighted adults from aquatic instars, surface species (e.g., water striders) or moribund adults floating on the surface. Usually swallows feed on concentrations of insects caught up in thermals, mass emergences or mating swarms. Those concentrations form in the sort of weather conditions that allow thermals to form (warm, sunny, high barometric pressure days). On cool, wet, cloudy days (low barometric pressure days) thermals don’t form, insects don’t swarm and hungry swallows are left to pick insects off the water surface. With their long wings swallows aren’t particularly well-designed for that type of acrobatic flight, so, energetically, that style of foraging is probably ‘net loss’ or ‘even sum’ for them, but better than not foraging at all. You can think of swallows as being flying barometric pressure indicators—low pressure, insects down low, so swallows down low, high pressure, insects up high, so swallows up high.

 

And, about the 1996 Cliff Swallow weather kill—Cliff Swallows (and probably most swallows) typically carry fat reserves sufficient to carry them for about 4 days without feeding, beyond that they starve and die. In the last week of May 1996, the weather was cold, wet, windy and miserable across the Great Plains. It was too cold for insects to emerge and/or fly. The swallows got wet and chilled when out trying to feed on insects that weren’t available…the only successful foraging they could do was picking insects off the water surface. The swallows survived for 4 days, but on the 5th day as much as two-thirds of the population died. The swallows that survived had shorter wing and tail feathers, larger skeletons and were perfectly bilaterally symmetrical, meaning they were efficient, acrobatic fliers that could carry larger fat reserves. The swallows that did not survive were just the opposite. In the years following the weather kill those swallows and their descendants have maintained the shorter feather lengths and larger skeletons (there was significant survival selection for those heritable traits).

 

The road kill study mentioned in the last paragraph of the blog showed that the wing feather lengths of Cliff Swallows nesting on bridges and road culverts declined significantly over the past 30 years. The shorter wing feathers made them more efficient, acrobatic fliers that could better avoid being hit by cars/trucks/SUVs/RVs and survive to reproduce, producing offspring who also had shorter wing feathers. The presence of humans on the landscape with their roads and vehicles was the cause of significant survival selection for that heritable trait…a demonstration of birds adapting to accommodate anthropogenic change in the environment. The two results (bad weather and road kill) are similar (shorter wing feathers leading to more efficient, acrobatic flight and survival selection), but with very different causes, one natural and one unnatural.

Many thanks to Mary for this great information!

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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3 Responses to Follow up to my earlier Swallows-on-Cold-Days Post

  1. Joanne says:

    Nature sure has a way of taking care of creation. Thanks Mary, for the interesting information. And Chris for passing it all on. I wonder how many humans have lost touch with Nature so much that they couldn’t relate to how adjustments are made for species survival — or to remark about low pressure and how birds feed. Far too many that is for sure. Having spent the first 20 years of my life in the “hills” I seem to have soaked that all up and it hasn’t left me. I am blessed to have grown up in Nebraska.

  2. elfinelvin says:

    The next time a bird dives in front of my car I’ll try to bear in mind they’ve adapted to dodge me. But I sure wish they’d adapt to flying a little higher.

  3. anastaciast says:

    A few days after I read this post, we went to Wagon Train SRA for an afternoon of fishing. It was cool and not an insect to be seen. On the north backwater, I watched fascinated as birds I did not know zoomed around looking for food. I also saw at least four different species of swallows. I desperately wanted to throw food up in the air for them! When I got home, I cracked open my field guides and discovered that the mystery birds were Black Terns! (Stokes Field Guide to Birds p. 214)

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