The Beautiful Barn Swallow Bird

Learn about the barn swallow bird and what makes them unique.

| November/December 2014

  • A barn swallows perched on a branch looks for a meal.
    Photo by
  • A barn swallow nest. As the name suggests, they love to nest in barns.
    Photo by Greg Page
  • A forked tail provides maneuverability in the air and serves as part of the mating selection process.
    Photo by Fotolia/Erni
  • A barn swallow gathers mud and grass for its nest.
    Photo by
  • Barn swallows return to most areas by late March and early April.
    Photo by Heather Bashow

Barn swallow

The barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) is one of the most widely recognized species of bird in the world. Found on nearly every continent, it is also one of the most reliably regular migratory birds. Some folks swear you can set your calendar by their annual flights. Myself having had to replant a frost-damaged garden that was set out pre-swallow return, they are as reliable an indicator of spring as the robin.

Natural navigators

Swallows migrate thousands of miles from their winter grounds in South and Central America to their breeding and nesting grounds in North America. Males are generally the first to return, in order to scout out nesting territory and nest sites, and they will retreat south in the event of a late freeze.

By late March to mid-April, barn swallows will have returned to most parts of the southern and central United States. They spend summers feasting on pest insects like flies and mosquitoes. By August — having raised one or two clutches of eggs — the birds head back to their winter grounds to molt, rest, and do it all over again in the spring.

Swallows can lay a clutch of up to seven eggs, but usually average only three or four. The incubation period is around 14 days, and both male and female will share incubation duties. The chicks grow fast and will fledge in about three weeks. Many pairs will go ahead and raise a second clutch during the breeding season. The adolescents from the first clutch will hang around with their parents for the rest of the season.

Interestingly enough, it isn’t the cold temperatures of North American winters that drive the birds south, it’s the lack of insects on which to feed. Almost exclusively insectivores, barn swallows are dynamic aerial feeders. They eat almost constantly and nearly exclusively on the wing, swooping and diving over open fields in search of the tasty insects, which comprise 99 percent of their diet.

In-flight entertainment

While there are several subspecies globally, all barn swallows share the distinct cobalt blue back and rufous throat, chin and forehead, as well as the deeply forked tail unique to swallow species. Males and females are quite similar, but the females’ bellies are slightly paler, and the tail is not quite so forked. Adults weigh between 1/2 and 3/4 of an ounce. They have a distinctive flight pattern, rolling and darting through the air, soaring up, and then diving down again with brilliant ease. They even drink and bathe on the wing, sweeping low enough to grab a mouthful of water, or a quick dunk to clean up.

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