Welcome swallows (Hirundo neoxena) are a new addition to New Zealand’s native fauna. Known only as occasional vagrants before the 1950s, they were first noticed breeding near Kaitāia, Northland, in 1958. Since then they have spread throughout the mainland, except for the central South Island mountains. They are also found on the Chatham and Kermadec islands.
The welcome swallow also breeds in Australia and New Caledonia.
Welcome swallows are small, slender birds with finely pointed wings and distinctive forked tails. They are deep blue on the head and back, with dark chestnut wings and tail. From the face to the chest they are orange-red – more intense during the breeding season – and off-white below. They are 15 centimetres long and weigh about 14 grams.
Insects such as blowflies, midges, beetles and moths are most often taken on the wing. Sometimes aquatic insects are caught from the surface of streams and pools.
During courtship, pairs hover and flutter, then pursue each other high into the sky. Once there are young to feed, adults dart swiftly from the nest, flying in long arcs to and from favoured feeding sites – often over water or grasslands.
In winter, large numbers of swallows flock together and head for reliable food supplies. They move southwards to Otago and Southland, and northwards as far as Norfolk Island. Rows of swallows are often seen perching along fences or power lines during the day. Mass overnight flocks may form in raupō (bulrush) swamps.
Welcome swallows’ distinctive mud nests hang from vertical or near-vertical surfaces under a roof or overhang, such as walls of caves, outhouses, barns, or under bridges and jetties. The nest resembles an upside-down igloo, made of beakfuls of mud strengthened with dry grass stalks. Starting from the base, the birds build out in curved tiers, creating a cup, which they then line with grass, rootlets, wool and feathers.
Breeding and life expectancy
Females lay four or more pink eggs with red-brown flecks, raising up to three broods between August and February. Only the female incubates and broods, but both parents feed the chicks. The oldest swallow found in New Zealand was six years.