Cultures around the world have long associated birds in the swallow family, Hirundidae, with the arrival of spring and good fortune. Some have even seen them as divine spirits. In Haiti it is known as “zwazo lapli” or rain bird, possibly an association with its conspicuous presence at nesting sites during the rainy months of April and May. We admire these longwinged birds for their graceful and acrobatic flight, and for their remarkable agility, which allows them to pursue and capture flying insects. Owing to their dependence on covered nest sites or protected nesting cavities, and to their remarkable ability to adapt to structures that we have built, many species of swallows coexist closely with humans, even in large cities. The Caribbean’s two endemic swallows are the Bahamas swallow and the golden swallow. As its eponym suggests, the first is found only in the Bahamas, and the second is found only on Hispaniola– although Jamaica was a former stronghold until the 1980s.
On Hispaniola, the Golden Swallow inhabits the central and southern mountain ranges of Dominican Republic, and the southern mountains of Haiti, typically above 700 meters, where it often forages in groups over open fields and savannahs near pinelands and mixed forests. However, from December to April, much larger flocks may form, comprising as many as 200 birds!. This bird’s unforgettable iridescent plumage shimmers with blue-green tones, accented by a delicate golden sheen. Female and immature plumage is duller, but similarly attractive. This little swallow may be easily distinguished from the swifts on the island by its light, bouncy, but not erratic, flight, by its shorter wings, slightly forked tail and snow-white underparts. The soft chi-weet call of this swallow readily reveals the location of its nest, softened with feathers, moss and even rabbit hair, and located within a natural cavity in a rocky wall or a tree, and, of course, in holes excavated by the Hispaniolan Woodpecker.
It has never been clear why the golden swallow disappeared from Jamaica, but habitat loss and introduced predators almost certainly played a role. Now, the golden swallow on Hispaniola is considered vulnerable to the same fate, in part due to forest clearing in the high mountains throughout the island. Predation of eggs and chicks by introduced mammals, such as rats and mongoose is an additional threat.
“This handsome swallow is found among the interior hills and is greeted with delight wherever seen from its graceful actions and pleasing coloration. As one climbs over steep slopes in the mountains among dead trunks of pine, a long-tailed swallow may come circling through the air to display in passing a white breast and glossy back. In its active evolutions it is certain to attract the eye, and the traveler is sure to pause to observe its course as it circles quickly away.” Alexander Wetmore and Bradshaw Hall Swales
“There are so many movements, rapid descents, fluttering and turns that it is almost impossible to follow a bird [referring to the golden swallow] with the eyes for too long without getting dizzy, especially if one is near a precipice.” Anabelle Stockton de Dod
Seeing the need for action to ensure the long-term health of our swallow populations, starting in 2009, researchers and conservationists began placing the first of more than one hundred artificial nest boxes in Valle Nuevo National Park. Now, several generations of swallows have used the nest boxes successfully, which makes it that much easier to observe these graceful birds flying over the picturesque Valle Nuevo pajon grass savannahs.