The Bird in Hand: The Barn Swallow
| July 28, 2021 1:00 AM
Some bird species have found cohabitating with humans to be impossible, such as the Passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, and the Ivory-billed woodpecker, just to name some well-known North American species that have gone extinct. But, for some species human habitation is the best of all worlds and they have thrived living alongside people. Such species include the House sparrow, the Eurasian starling, the Common crow, the Rock dove (Feral pigeon), among many others. And included in this second list is our bird of the month, the Barn swallow.
The Barn swallow is not only one of the most common bird species in the world, having a presence on every inhabited continent, it is the most common passerine bird species in the world. As you might recall from earlier Bird-in-Hand columns, passerines are also known as the songbirds. While the swallows might not be particularly noted for their voices, they do have the requisite foot structure that, in part, defines all passerine species: three toes forward, one toe to the rear. Hence their other common vernacular name, the perching birds.
Across the globe, Barn swallows migrate to the northern continents for the summer, where they build nests and raise families. For the second half of the year, they migrate to the southern continents and simply hang out, catch some rays and work on their tans. Or something like that. These particular birds are the Type A personalities.
In contrast to the migratory birds, there exist small populations of Barn swallows that are year-round residents – migrating neither north nor south. These are the Type Bs. There’s no place like home.
Prior to the settlement and development of North America by vast hordes of immigrants from around the world, Barn swallows nested in caves. And there were probably far fewer of them in those pre-modern times – not that anyone was gathering the data. But humans have a tendency to build large structures, such as barns, that are great for building nests. And now Barn swallows nest exclusively on manmade buildings and other large structures, such as highway overpasses. Barn swallow populations have grown alongside human populations.
Barn swallows mate for life and spend all of their time together, both summer and winter. Or, in their case, summer and summer, as they live in perpetual summer – breeding in the northern hemisphere summer and living the off-season in the southern hemisphere summer.
In flight, the Barn swallow is easy to identify because it is the only swallow species in our area that actually has a “swallow tail.” All other swallow species in our county – Northern roughed-wing, Bank, Cliff, Violet-green, and Tree – all lack these obviously forked tails. Sort of a misnomer, don’t you think?
The Barn swallow is a beautiful bird when seen close up and in full light. They are a dark steely blue on top and with a buff-colored underside. If you can capture them in your binoculars, you’ll see the bird’s red face and throat and sporting a dark bandits-mask over their eyes.
As I write this column, juvenile birds will be out and about. They will resemble their parents, sans the forked tail. If you are sharp-eyed, you might also notice a patchy white band across the tail in these newbies. The proper swallow tail will appear when they become sexually mature; as in, next year. Youth is fleeting with passerines.
Barn swallows build nests of mud pellets – mouthfuls of mud mixed with grass fiber. They shape the mud into little cups which are attached in areas protected from predators, the wind and the rain, such as under eaves. The cups are typically about three inches across and a couple inches deep. When the general construction is completed, the birds will then line the interior of the nest first with a layer of grass, followed by a softer layer of feathers or animal hair. Birds will reuse old nests, but the interior parts are replaced with fresh material and mud pellets added for repair as needed. The male and the female build the nest together.
While the birds will nest semi-colonially with other Barn swallows, the males aggressively protect the immediate area around their nests. Barn swallows will sometimes pilfer each other’s nesting material, hence the need for the bandit’s mask.
Barn swallows are exclusively insectivores, taking their prey on the wing, generally over open areas such as parks, pastures, and ball fields. They also drink and bathe while flying, dipping down for either a mouthful of water to drink, or lightly splashing the water surface for a rinse. The birds will land on the ground to not only gather mud, but also to eat grit, which helps with digestion. They also appreciate a helping of finely crushed eggshells, needing the calcium. Birding enthusiasts can provide such prepared eggshells on open feeding platforms to attract the swallows.
Barn swallows themselves are subject to being made into a meal by various raptors, such as Peregrine falcons. What goes around, comes around.
The modern English word for these birds – “swallow” – is from the Old English swealwe, which has unknown etymology. Many European languages share similar words for these birds, suggesting a common and ancient origin.
Barn swallows are traditionally known as harbingers of summer, but they might as well be considered the same for fall. The vast majority of these birds are gone before September 1st is marked on the calendar. By late summer, the birds are fattening up for their flight south, perhaps all the way to South America. And just before migrating, you might see them gathering together in large flocks, often perched together along telephone lines. Then you’ll know that summer is just about done. Time to get out the flannels!
It’s a boon that Barn swallows find life with humans so agreeable. They are beautiful little jewels and I enjoy watching them sweep across the sky, wheeling round and round. And when they’re near, you might hear their little voices, which to me sounds like trickles of water. And to think that you don’t have to go looking for these birds to add them to your life list – they come to you! Best excuse ever to build that barn you’ve always wanted. Happy birding!
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