Jul 3, 2014 | Featured Web Article

Barn Swallow: At Home in the Air

One early naturalist estimated that a barn swallow that lived ten years would fly more than two million miles, enough to travel eighty-seven times around the earth.
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The barn swallow is named for its preferred nesting location of barns. This species seems to define what it means to be at home in the air. One early naturalist estimated that a barn swallow that lived ten years would fly more than two million miles, enough to travel eighty-seven times around the earth. One of the most familiar and beloved birds in rural America, the barn swallow is welcomed everywhere as a sign of spring. Nothing says "country" more than a pair of barn swallows zipping in and out of the open doors of a working barn, darting after insects and chattering incessantly. Sometimes two or three pairs will share a favored site during nesting season. They will ignore the normal activity of the people and animals that regularly use the barn, but if a strange person or animal approaches, the adults will swoop and chatter and snap their bills at the trespasser.

How do I identify it? Glossy blue-black above and orange below, the barn swallow is the only American swallow that has a true "swallow tail," with an elongated outer pair of tail feathers forming a deep V. The females are not quite as glossy or highly colored, and the fork in their tails is not quite as pronounced. Like all swallows, they have short legs and rather weak feet used for perching, not walking. They are much more graceful in flight than on the ground. The similar-looking cliff swallow prefers to nest on rocky cliffs and under bridges, as its name suggests. It is not as common around human habitation as is the barn swallow. The cliff swallow shows a pale tan forehead and rump and lacks the barn swallow's deeply notched tail.

Where do I find it? The barn swallow may be found over any open area, such as pastures, fields, and golf courses, as well as lakes, ponds, and rivers. It has adapted well to humans and is not shy of people, nesting close to settled areas as long as it has open space for feeding. Barn swallows travel in great flocks during migrations, often in company with other swallow species. They arrive in most of their U.S. range in April and leave in early to mid-fall.

What can I feed or do to attract it? Foraging almost entirely on the wing, the barn swallow takes a variety of insect prey, from flies and locusts to moths, grasshoppers, bees, and wasps. Occasionally small berries or seeds are eaten, but this is uncommon. Only in bad weather will barn swallows feed on the ground. During breeding season, you may bring barn swallows into close range by throwing white feathers into the air near a flock of soaring birds; the graceful fliers will swoop in to snatch them up to use for nest linings. Barn swallows also enjoy eating bits of baked eggshells during breeding season. Bake them at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes to sterilize then, then crumble into small bits and sprinkle on the ground.

Where does it nest? The barn swallow's nest is a cup of mud and grass, lined with feathers and placed on a rafter or glued under an eave. Besides barns, other open buildings, covered porches, or the undersides of bridges or docks are used. During second nestings, immatures from the first brood help feed and care for their younger siblings.

Excerpted from the regional backyard guidebooks by Bill Thompson, III, and the editors of Bird Watcher's Digest. View the entire series in our nature shop »



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