Barn Swallows

Mid- to late summer brings the arrival of barn swallows to our neck of the woods. Jim calls them “flying cigars,” and that’s what they look like. Sleek and swift, they swoop through the air harvesting insects, then taking shelter under the eaves or porch fronts of homes in our neighborhood.

Photo by friend Bob

The birds generally favor open areas rather than heavily wooded or urban ones. Farms and suburban locales provide open space for flight, flying insects for food, as well as structures for nesting.

The barn swallow is the most wide-spread of swallows, covering most of the globe. In the western hemisphere it breeds in North America in our summer months, and it spends winters in South America.

They move too fast for us to get good photos at home. We solved that problem, however, when we visited the University of Iowa Natural History Museum last year. The birds were mounted in the late 1800s, so they are more than 100 years old. They are slightly worse for the wear, but they were not moving.

This photo shows their long split tail. The male is on the left.

Photo by friend Bob

Nests are built by both parents from mud and plant fibers. The birds typically create mud pellets using mud and dried grass, first building a shelf with the pellets, and then building up the sides.

When the birds breed, four or five eggs are incubated by the female for 14 to 16 days. After hatching the babies spend another 17 to 24 days in the nest.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers some fun facts about these swallows:

Barn Swallows once nested in caves throughout North America, but now build their nests almost exclusively on human-made structures. Today the only North American Barn Swallow population that still regularly uses caves as nest sites occurs in the Channel Islands off the California coast. Barn Swallow parents sometimes get help from other birds to feed their young. These “helpers at the nest” are usually older siblings from previous clutches, but unrelated juveniles may help as well.

According to legend, the Barn Swallow got its forked tail because it stole fire from the gods to bring to people. An angry deity hurled a firebrand at the swallow, singeing away its middle tail feathers.

Do you have swallows in your area? Do you have stories of swallows to share? What is going on in your neighborhood? Let us know where you’re located.


9 thoughts on “Barn Swallows

  1. Jim in IA

    When someone mows their lawn, the swallows put on a terrific show of aerial artistry. I remember standing near the barn door as a kid watching them come and go. Their nest was just inside and above the door.

  2. farmquilter

    We have them here on the farm in eastern Washington. They are welcome to build their nest in the barn, but I hate it when they build them under the back porch awning…messy little things!! I love watching all the bird life here on the farm – hawks stooping, the cool sound of the nighthawks in flight, the songbirds all fill the air with their songs and the sky with their beauty in flight.

    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      Me, too. I’m not what I’d call a bird-watcher, but sure do enjoy them all. We have trees behind the house and enjoy a range of songbirds, mostly, back there. The swallows like it better in the open out front.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. shoreacres

    Believe it or not, one of the favored nesting areas for them here is the floating dock system in one of the marinas. Because the docks do float, any nest built under the concrete slabs that form the walkways always remain a certain distance from the surface of the water. There’s steel undergirders and little corners where the nests fit perfectly.

    The only way to actually see the nest (once you know where it is) is to lay on your stomach on the dock and put your head nearly to the water. Then, you may get a glimpse of them.

    How to find the nests? Easy. Just keep watching, and you’ll eventually see swallows flying in at a pretty good clip – straight into the nest. Their navigation is marvelous. Because the boats always are moored in the middle of the slip, they have a runway of clear air leading to the nest.

    Once the babies hatch, you can hear them, of course. And then, once fledged, they stay around the boats, perching on the rigging and lifelines while they wait for mom and dad to show up with a meal.

    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      I’d enjoy watching them, their sure path in the midst of ever-changing surroundings. The waterfront insects must be a powerful attraction.

      Thanks for reading and commenting today.


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