Why Is It Called A Violet-green Swallow?

Violet-green Swallows are a common sight throughout much of western North America from Alaska south through Mexico, particularly around human habitation. In the minds of many familiar with this bird,  spring does not commence until the first “Vee-Gees” arrive and begin prospecting their residential neighborhoods for nest sites.


This is the standard view one gets of a perched Violet-green Swallow. Photographed at Eugene, Oregon 4 April 2009, this bird leaves no doubt as to why "green" is part of its name, yet there is no "violet" evident in this profile. It's important to note how far up above and behind the eye (closed in this image) the white extends on the face of this bird. This mark can be used to separate Violet-greens from the other North American swallows, all of which have dark feathering immediately behind and above the eye. 

I have often wondered why the “Violet” is capitalized and comes first in the name of this swallow. It really ought to be named the Green violet-rumped Swallow. When this lovely swallow is perched, the purple and blue hues on the lower rump and upper tail coverts are usually difficult and often impossible to see. Their long folded wings typically obscure the rump and upper tail unless you are very close and looking at the bird from the rear. However, in good light the brilliant emerald green back is hard to miss. 


Even in good light, the color on the lower rump and upper tail coverts is not a useful field mark on a flying Violet-green Swallow. This part of the bird will generally look black, as it does on this bird photographed at Eugene, Oregon on 4 April 2009. The bright green back, white above and behind the eye, and white wrapping around onto both sides of the upper rump are the best field marks for identifying a Violet-green in flight.

As is the case with all swallows, most encounters with Violet-greens involve flying birds. Their flight is characterized by constant changes in direction, acceleration, deceleration, and banking to and fro. Pack a lunch (and maybe a tent and a sleeping bag) if you set out to capture good flight photos of these birds. Sometimes, getting a clear visual impression of color--including the bright green back--is a challenge even in ideal lighting conditions.


This kind of view of the intensely violet rump of a Violet-green Swallow is the exception and not the rule. On the day this image was taken, 4 April 2009, the lighting conditions were ideal. Additionally, I was able to look at and photograph this bird from near eye-level, allowing me to enjoy perhaps the best views I've ever had of the purple and blue feathers on the lower rump of a this species.

Like the crests of a Double-crested Cormorant, the violet on a Violet-green Swallow is a bit of a phantom field mark. I suspect that many new birders have misidentified their initial Violet-greens because they could not find the alleged coloration that the name promises. In the next day or so, we'll visit one of the ultimate cryptic field marks, the ring on the neck of a Ring-necked Duck.

All photos taken by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens.


The best violet I’ve ever seen on one, the bird was actually perched on a cliff edge, at ground level for me. The day was unusually clear & brilliant. It was just glaring violet! The rest of the time it seems like you just get flashes of it as they whiz by at certain angles.


This does not tell you how it was named !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


lol. i laughed so hard at the top pic! my first ncagpenry, i just wore size 5/6 dkny stretch jeans! it was perfect, they fit right under my bump! but each ncagpenry following, it became more clear that i actually needed maternaty jeans! Well, I have 3 girls (2 here on earth and one in heaven). Their names are: Chloe Rian (pronounced Ryan), Faith Marie (our angel), and Kylie Faith. If we have another girl, I really like Kendal, Paige, Ashlee, and Calliegh. Good luck and congrats!!!!!! =]

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