Australian Field Ornithology 2012, 29, 160–165
Summary. All species of swallow primarily forage on the wing although occasionally
come to ground to take prey. There are only a few documented cases of Australian
swallow species foraging while on the ground, and descriptions of foraging
techniques in these instances are limited. Here we provide details of observations
on ground-foraging of the Welcome Swallow Hirundo neoxena in south-eastern
Australia, as well as an instance of kleptoparasitism.
All species of swallow (family Hirundinidae) predominantly forage on the wing
(Turner & Rose 1989; Turner 2004; Higgins et al. 2006), although some species
very occasionally come to the ground to forage (e.g. Wolinski 1980; Sealy 1982;
Erskine 1984; Hobson & Sealy 1987; Turner 2004; Chişamera & Manole 2005).
This behaviour is most frequent either in adverse weather when few insects are
ying, or at times when crawling arthropods are particularly abundant (Turner
& Rose 1989; Turner 2004). Some species, such as the South African Swallow
Petrochelidon spilodera, are more prone to foraging on the ground than others
(e.g. Earle 1985; Turner 2004). Yet the importance and nature of ground-foraging
in swallows are poorly understood (Hobson & Sealy 1987).
In Australia, it appears that only the Welcome Swallow Hirundo neoxena and
Fairy Martin Petrochelidon ariel have been recorded foraging on the ground
(Higgins et al. 2006) [although the Barn Swallow H. rustica has been recorded
to do so in other parts of its range outside Australia (e.g. Hobson & Sealy 1987;
Turner 2006)]. Descriptions of ground-foraging techniques in Australian swallows
are very limited, and are outlined as follows: Brock (1978) observed Welcome
Swallows walking behind Common Starlings Sturnus vulgaris and Australian
Magpies Cracticus tibicen for distances of ~50 cm before ying up to catch
disturbed insects. Boehm (1957, p. 311) observed ocks of Welcome Swallows
‘following a plough, searching the newly-turned soil, and frequently settling,
probably to pick up insects or their pupae’ but also observed Welcome Swallows
settling on soil covering sheep carcasses, speculating that they were feeding on
ies emerging from the soil. Baldwin (1964, p. 208) observed Fairy Martins to ‘rest
Ground-foraging techniques of Welcome Swallows
Hirundo neoxena, including an instance of
James A. Fitzsimons1, 2 and Janelle L. Thomas3
1School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, 221 Burwood Highway,
Burwood VIC 3125, Australia
2The Nature Conservancy, Suite 3–04, 60 Leicester Street, Carlton VIC 3053, Australia
3BirdLife Australia, Suite 2–05, 60 Leicester Street, Carlton VIC 3053, Australia
Ground-foraging techniques of Welcome Swallows 161
Figure 1. Welcome Swallow foraging on the ground at Dove Lake, Tasmania. Note
lowered wings and partially spread tail. Photo: James Fitzsimons
on the ground, where they gathered injured moths and ate charcoal’. Dale (1922,
p. 166), on inspection of a municipal sanitary site, found the ‘ground was literally
black with swallows’ (species not specied) and they were observed eating ies
emerging from the soil. White (1943) observed many Welcome Swallows settling
on clods of earth, apparently eating ‘lucerne eas’, before severe thunderstorms.
McGilp (1930) saw Welcome Swallows pick up small ants from the ground on
several occasions. Beck (1923, p. 163) observed Welcome Swallows alighting on
manure — ‘evidently newly hatched ies were the attraction’. Edgar (1966, p. 30)
had ‘several notes of ground feeding by small parties [of Welcome Swallows] on
paddocks or farm roads...’ in New Zealand, adding that on the ground ‘the body is
held in a horizontal position: gait is weak and waddling’.
Here we describe four instances of ground-foraging by Welcome Swallows, in
Tasmania and Victoria, and provide new details on behaviour and the techniques
Dove Lake, Tasmania
On 29 December 2008 between 1945 and 2000 h, two Welcome Swallows were
observed foraging on the asphalt carpark at Dove Lake, Cradle Mountain–Lake St
Clair National Park, Tasmania (39°31′S, 145°58′E). The weather was cold (<10°C)
and overcast, as it had been for most of the day. The general behaviour consisted
of the Swallows ying (separately) to a location on the ground and, once alighted,
partially outstretching and lowering their wings so that the tips were touching the
ground (i.e. the wings were not folded across the back as is usual while perched)
162 Australian Field Ornithology J.A. Fitzsimons & J.L. Thomas
(see Figure 1); the tail was also partially spread. The Swallows then began what
appeared to be a systematic ve-point (sometimes more) head-turning motion
(from left to right, with ~1 second between each motion) while looking at the
ground. Occasionally a Swallow gleaned from the ground from this stationary
position, although the target prey could not be determined. In one instance, one
Swallow also spent ~20 seconds pecking at a piece of aluminium foil, most likely
containing food scraps. In addition to these foraging techniques, the Swallows also
walked swiftly, or occasionally ran, to pursue prey on the ground, while maintaining
the wing and tail position described above. The Swallows rarely stayed in the same
location for >30 seconds and took short, low, and direct ights to a new location
in the carpark (where they repeated the behaviour) or a log bordering the carpark.
The two Swallows stayed within ~20 m of each other during the course of the
observations. Welcome Swallows had been observed foraging ~5 m above the
water at Dove Lake earlier in the day, when patchy rain was present.
Cape Nelson, Victoria
Another instance of ground-foraging was observed on 16 April 2011, at ~1230 h,
on the asphalt carpark at Cape Nelson Lighthouse (38°26′S, 141°33′E), Cape
Nelson State Park, south of Portland, western Victoria. The day was sunny and, at
the time of the observation, was 16–17°C (Bureau of Meteorology 2011). At least
20 Welcome Swallows were present in the vicinity of the carpark, often perched on
buildings associated with the lighthouse. Some ew down to the ground and drank
from a muddy pool of water in a pothole in the carpark. At least two of them landed
away from the water and pecked at the ground. Unlike the Swallows at Dove Lake,
the Cape Nelson Swallows had their wings folded across the back and were neither
actively walking, nor ying short distances from location to location to forage on
the ground. Small (<1 cm) white moths, both alive and dead, were observed on
the ground at the time (and elsewhere in adjoining Discovery Bay Coastal Park on
this day), and may have been the target prey items. Welcome Swallows were also
foraging on the wing low over the carpark at Cape Nelson on this day.
At ~1400 h on 26 December 2011, JAF observed a group of ve Welcome Swallows
ying at various heights above the grassed surface at the Melbourne Cricket
Ground (37°49′S, 144°59′E), Melbourne, Victoria. A large moth (body length
~3 cm) uttering low over the grass became the focus for the group of Swallows.
Individual Swallows made numerous attempts to capture the moth in ight but
struggled to hold it for long, most likely from a combination of (a) its relatively
large size, (b) its continued uttering and (c) harassment from other Swallows in
the ock for the moth. This harassment took the form of one Swallow deliberately
swooping close (i.e. within centimetres) from above or to the side of the bird
holding the moth, causing the moth to be relinquished, mostly while the bird with
the moth was in ight. On at least two occasions, a single Swallow landed on the
grass in an attempt to capture the incapacitated moth. On at least one of these
occasions, the bird on the ground was swooped by other Swallows. When on the
ground, the Swallows’ wings were folded across the back, and no walking was
observed. Eventually one Swallow ew off with the moth.
Ground-foraging techniques of Welcome Swallows 163
The Gardens, Tasmania
At 1245 h on 27 February 2012, we observed a Welcome Swallow alight on an
asphalt road in front of our oncoming car at The Gardens (41°10′S, 48°17′E),
Tasmania. The Swallow pecked twice at the ground before ying off. Upon later
inspection, there were no obvious arthropods on the road, and it was presumed
that the Swallow was collecting large sand grains (grit), as the road is adjacent to
Swallows are known to either forage low or occasionally come to alight on the
ground in adverse weather conditions (as insects are less available higher up),
or when there is an abundance of food such as swarming insects (Turner &
Rose 1989; Turner 2004). The Welcome Swallows seen at Dove Lake were most
likely foraging on the ground because of the cold weather, whereas those at Cape
Nelson were more likely responding to an available and easily gatherable food
source, rather than a lack of ying insects. The observations of ground-foraging in
Melbourne involved the retrieval of a prey item.
There are few descriptions of the techniques that swallows use to forage when
on the ground in Australia. For example, running does not appear to have been
previously described for Welcome Swallows (Higgins et al. 2006). Swallows
generally are known to be able to run, but will y to ‘move any great distance’
(Gaunt 1969, p. 51). The apparent systematic searching behaviour of the left-
to-right head movement, observed in the Welcome Swallows at Dove Lake, has
not been previously recorded (Higgins et al. 2006). The function of partially
spreading and dropping the wings down (as opposed to folding the wings across
the back) and spreading the tail while ground-foraging, as observed at Dove Lake,
is not clear. Klapste & Klapste (1985, p. 98) described instances of dusting and
sunning in Welcome Swallows which showed some similarity to our observations:
‘Wings on the sun side spread and lifted to various elevations in different birds.
The body was inclined so that the side exposed to the sun was uppermost. Some
birds also spread their tails’. However, in the cold and overcast conditions during
our observations of the Dove Lake Swallows, sunning was not likely (although
black asphalt tends to retain heat so is it possible that the Swallows were taking
advantage of a relatively warm surface on this cold day).
Moths have previously been recorded in the diet of the Welcome Swallow,
but infrequently (Higgins et al. 2006). The moth pursued in the Melbourne
observation was a relatively large prey item for the Welcome Swallow.
Although both the Dove Lake and Cape Nelson Welcome Swallows were clearly
foraging for invertebrate prey, Turner (2006) noted that the closely related Barn
Swallow gives grit to its chicks, probably to break up the hard exoskeleton of prey,
and the Tree Martin Petrochelidon nigricans has also been observed taking granitic
grit near Cann River, Victoria (M. Tarburton pers. comm. 2012). Although Higgins
et al. (2006) did not document grit being ingested by the Welcome Swallow, Rose
(1973) found a small fragment of glass in the stomach of one bird. It is likely that
the Welcome Swallow at The Gardens was collecting grit from the road, and it
164 Australian Field Ornithology J.A. Fitzsimons & J.L. Thomas
cannot be ruled out that those at Dove Lake and Cape Nelson may also have been
collecting grit from the asphalt carparks. Hobson & Sealy (1987) documented the
repetitive picking up and dropping of inedible material (pebbles, grass, leaves
and twigs) by various species of North American swallows while on the ground.
This behaviour does not appear to have been documented for Australian swallows
(Higgins et al. 2006).
The competition for the large moth in the Melbourne observation, which resulted
in the harassment of the Welcome Swallow with the moth by other individuals,
is likely to be an example of intraspecic kleptoparasitism. Kleptoparasitism is
generally rare in passerines (Brockmann & Barnard 1979), and although it has been
recorded for some Australian passerines, such as woodswallows (e.g. Robinson
1993; Fulton 2005; Recher & Davis 2005; Davis 2009), it does not appear to be
recorded for Welcome Swallows (Higgins et al. 2006). Outside Australia, von
Vietinghoff-Riesch (1955, cited by Turner 2006) recorded the closely-related Barn
Swallow stealing a buttery from a sparrow.
The observations described in the present paper and those of Lindsay (2012)
suggest that there is still more to learn on the foraging behaviour of Welcome
Swallows. Further documentation of ground-foraging by swallows in Australia,
as has occurred in North American species (e.g. Wolinski 1980; Sealy 1982;
Erskine 1984; Hobson & Sealy 1987), would improve our understanding of the
circumstances and techniques used by Australian swallows when performing this
Thanks go to Angela Turner, Michael Tarburton and Grant Palmer for helpful comments
on a draft of this note.
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Received 4 January 2012