Encounter – Pacific Swallow

The Pacific Swallow – note the rufous throat and face

‘One swallow does not make a summer’ is part of a quote attributed to Aristotle. In truth it represents a very Eurocentric position on swallows, in this case the Barn Swallow that migrates south to India in winter. On my visit to the Nilgiris last week in the middle of winter I encountered a number of swallows that seemed familiar yet not altogether so. While they were not hawking insects in the air with elaborate swooping sallies, they were huddled inside cowsheds and horse stables or perched on electric wires. That they were not Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) I could tell from the absence of the dark chin-strap. Their throats were rich rufous and so was the face above the bill and below the eyes. The underside was streaked slightly and not whitish or infused with rufous as in the Barn Swallow. The upperparts were glossy blue-black and the underside of the tail was marked with white, visible clearly when the birds fanned out their tails while maneuvering in the air or preparing to perch. The tail is also shorter and less forked than in the Barn Swallow and much shorter than in the Wire-tailed Swallow (Hirundo smithii).

The Pacific Swallow is also known as the Nilgiri House-Swallow

These were Pacific Swallows (Hirundo tahitica), a species that occurs in the hills of southern India. The bird’s range extends to southeast Asia and to the Solomon Islands in the south Pacific. The subspecies that occurs in the Nilgiris and Sri Lanka is domicola, described by Jerdon in 1844. They are and have been known by a variety of other names, among them House Swallow, Hill Swallow and Nilgiri House-Swallow. The last name is most apt as the birds can be seen darting in and out of the eaves of tile-roofed village houses in the terraced valleys surrounding Ooty and Coonoor.

The Pacific Swallow struck me as tame and trusting

The swallows I met were unafraid and allowed me to get very close. I saw them on several occasions at elevations of 2000 m and above in the Nilgiris. Though I have visited the southern hills many times before, this was my first close encounter with this species.

More than enough to make my winter.

Text and pictures by Beej

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