Swifts and swallows are members of a broader group of birds collectively known as “aerial insectivores,” a group that also includes nighthawks, whip-poor-wills, and flycatchers. All these species forage by capturing insects in flight, either by sallying out from a perch (e.g., flycatchers) or by pursuing them in continuous flight (e.g., swallows). No matter how they feed, however, these birds are generally in trouble, and show some of the largest population declines of any group of North American birds. New Hampshire Audubon has initiated multiple projects involving aerial insectivores, and this page focuses on swallows. See our separate pages for Common Nighthawk and Eastern Whip-poor-will.
Our swallow work focuses on two State Threatened Species: Purple Martin and Cliff Swallow. Both were far more common in the 1980s but have declined to a quarter or less their populations of 3-4 decades ago. Purple Martins were once abundant over much of the state, with a concentration in the Lakes Region, but are now found only in a handful of colonies on the Seacoast. Thanks to the efforts of a dedicated team of volunteers, this small population continues to grow and we hope to establish new colonies in the future.
Cliff Swallow monitoring in the late 2010s revealed that New Hampshire typically hosts 20-25 colonies a year, which in turn contain around 150 pairs. This contrasts with the 80 or more colonies in the state in the early 1980s. Most are now in the Lakes Region or Coos County, and all are located on bridges or buildings. We have recently begun two new Cliff Swallow projects: installation of artificial nests and intensive nest monitoring, both of which will help us better understand what factors might be affecting local populations of this species.
Although we still don’t fully understand why aerial insectivores are declining, there are often actions people can take to make the environment safer for them. One of these is to minimize use of insecticides, especially near wetlands, since these potentially impact swallows’ insect prey. And because many species nest in close association with people, there are things you can do to encourage successful breeding, including not capping chimneys, installing bird houses, and leaving nests alone if you find them in your barn. See the links below for some general references on aerial insectivore conservation actions, including some not directly related to our study species.
NH Audubon Launches Cliff Swallow Study (Afield, Winter 2021)
NH’s Threatened Cliff Swallows (and how you can help) (Brochure, NH Audubon and NH Fish and Game)
Photos: Purple Martin nesting gourds, by Pam Hunt (top); Cliff Swallow nest, by Holly Bauer (circle).