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.
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.
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.