Fun with Swallows and Feathers – Nature Notes from the Steamboat Peninsula

By providing the right kind of feathers in the right way, you can easily attract swallows. Every spring, swallows search for the best soft materials to improve the comfort and warmth of their nests. Soft and downy feathers are perfect and swallows get excited when they find a good source.

These birds possess remarkable flying skills. Watching them collect feathers for their nests offers hours of entertainment.

What feathers are best? Birds like the softer downy curved feathers to line their nests. They will not use large-shafted straight tail and wing feathers. Natural colors work well though the swallows can get used to brightly-colored dyed feathers too. Swallows will pick up one-inch feathers but they prefer larger ones. They get quite animated finding a five to seven-inch goose or turkey flank feather. Their nests are about 6 inches wide so one large curved feather goes a long way to cover the bottom, kind of like a wall-to-wall carpet. A big perfect large feather is a rare find so the little birds must experiment to learn how to grab and fly with them.

Swallows will sometimes land to pick up a feather though they usually grab them off the ground while flying since these birds are not efficient hoppers or walkers. When providing nest materials on the ground, just make sure that the area is even, free from obstructions, and has plenty of space for the birds to make their approach and exit flights. Swallows are very cautious when they pick feathers off the ground in flight. Several practice approaches serve to help the bird to know if a feather grab is safe. This makes sense as they are zooming down beak-first at 20 miles an hour to pick up a feather on the ground. They are safer grabbing feathers in the air.

A feather floating in the air instantly attracts swallows looking for nest materials. Provide this and become quickly popular with the local swallows in the spring. With the right wind, launching feathers by hand works well, but usually the plumes drift quickly and disappointingly to the ground. A fun trick is to launch feathers from a ten-foot, one-inch wide plastic pipe. Place a feather at one end and blow into the air from the other end like a dart gun. After a few days, the swallows catch on that airborne feathers are being offered when they see the pipe raised. 

For the larger feathers, the birds have to learn how to catch and fly with them. Early in the season, they make hesitant attempts to catch the bigger five to six-inch feathers. Once they learn how, the birds become adept at mid-air grabs. Both the male and female swallows collect feathers, often working in pairs. Their mouths make a small snap sound when closing or attempting to close on a feather. The swallows also must learn that the best way to fly with a big feather is to carry it curved under the body, shaft-first. So feathers are often dropped mid-air to change to the best position. When this happens the feather may get seized by another swallow and a chase is on.

Barnyard fowl are a good source of feathers. If you know someone who eats their chickens or turkeys, have them save the feathers. Barnyard birds may have parasites like mites. Place future swallow nest feathers in a 0º F. freezer for 48 hours, remove for 48 hours and freeze again for a 48 hours. This kills adult parasites the first freeze, lets any remaining eggs hatch when the feathers are out of the freezer, and kills them during the second freeze.

Once the swallows discover a source for feathers, they will return from nests miles away. Eventually, the birds will recognize you as a consistent feather provider and circle when you come out your door. Once your yard is known as a source, they will return again and again, year after year.

– Chris Maynard

This article originally appeared in last spring’s Echo, the publication for members of Black Hills Audubon.

Chris is fascinated with feathers. He also has a website devoted to images of feathers from around the world, including a few of swallows catching goose feathers in mid-air. He has also produced and is selling an 18”x 24” poster of the alphabet as found in the feather patterns of a single remarkable species of pheasant found in Vietnam and Laos. Some of his 3d framed feathers will be at the Mud Bay Coffee on the Westside during the month of April. His website is featherfolio.com.

Nature Notes from the Steamboat Peninsula is a new series appearing here, noting and enjoying some of what nature and her admirers are up to in our neighborhood. If you have suggestions for topics – or even an entire article you would like see published here, please email webmaster@griffinneighbors.org. And, as always, feel free to leave a comment.

Posted in Nature Notes from the Steamboat Peninsula.