Tag Archives: Backyard Science

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.


Out the Back Window – Butterflies and Basil

by Jim and Melanie

I have a small garden plot next to the house where I raise tomatoes, pole beans, rhubarb, zinnias, peppers, and most important, basil. I let the basil get a little out of control and noticed it was flowering a lot. One sunny day, some winged visitors were there enjoying the basil flowers and the warm sun. I took a few pictures. I couldn’t identify them and later forgot about them. In browsing through those pictures, I came across this one from that day.

At the time, my uneducated guess was that it was a Monarch or Viceroy. They can be confusing since they look a lot alike. I found two good pictures of the Monarch and Viceroy species. Can you see the difference in their markings. Notice the line across the rear part of the wings on the Viceroy. The creature in my photograph above is clearly not either. What is it? If you know, please comment below.

Now for the tasty stuff. The reason we raise basil is, of course, to make pesto. What wonderful stuff. We tried several different versions of the recipe. Some ingredients were different in each. Finally, we settled on our own version that is simple and uses walnuts. If you want to try it yourself, try our recipe.

I think you will be glad you did. We reach into the freezer any time and pull out frozen basil cups for all kinds of uses. One of our favorites is pesto pizza. What a treat!