Bird Watcher's General Store

Swarm of Swallows - 10/19/01


Dear Bird Folks,

Last week I was walking along Nauset Beach when a huge flock of birds suddenly appeared. They landed in the bushes and on the dunes, and then took off in a massive cloud of birds. Some weird looking guy in a purple tie-dyed shirt, said that they were swallows. I didn't really believe him, but I have no idea what they could have been. Could they really have been swallows?
Roger, Chatham

First Roger,

Never doubt a guy wearing a purple tie-dye shirt. If he has the guts to wear a shirt like that, he must know what he is talking about. And, as it turns out, your little purple friend was right. The birds that you saw were, indeed, swallows, tree swallows to be exact.

Tree swallows are the first swallow to arrive here in the spring and the last to leave in the fall. Most other swallows will also eat some seeds and bayberries, thus allowing them to stay here during part of the cold, bugless time of year. Bayberry, a common plant on the Cape, has very waxy berries, so few birds are able to eat them. The swallows have most of the waxy berries to themselves. In fact, bayberries are so waxy that some of the wax passes through the birds. I've heard some people actually use the swallow's droppings as tiny candles. Don't ask me to prove that.

Tree swallows form huge flocks along the Atlantic coast in the fall. Perhaps it is because of the bayberries that these massive flocks often stop on the Cape During fall migration. A flock of close to 100,000 birds was seen on Sandy Neck Beach in 1978. There must have been a lot of little candles that year.

A few weeks ago, a guy called me from Chatham and reported a hugh flock of swallows, perhaps like the one you saw on Nauset Beach. This flock was so large, that this guy could see these tiny birds flying toward Morris Island as he looked out his kitchen window from almost a mile away. I had to see this for myself, so I jumped into my car and headed toward Chatham. As I drove onto the Morris Island causeway, the swallows were there, just like he said. It was one of the most impressive sights that I have ever witnessed in nature. Swallows were everywhere, swirling clouds of birds that would suddenly settle onto bayberries like locusts. I made an effort to count all of the birds, but even after using my fingers and all of my toes, I still wasn't able to count them all. The swallows were oblivious to the cars and people who stopped to watch the spectacle. Slowly, the flock moved toward where I was standing. It seemed more like fog rolling in off the ocean than a flock of birds, for they were mostly silent. As I stood still, hundreds of birds glided inches past my face. I could have easily reached out and poked them in the ear, if I knew where their ears were.

An experience like you had, Roger, should make you realize two important things. One, you never know what kind of wonderful natural adventure you might have anytime you take a walk on Cape Cod. And, two, you should never doubt the word of anyone wearing tie-dye. Tie-dye people are right about everything. Well, everything except fashion.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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