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The Barn Swallow, An Ace Pilot

Updated on November 19, 2012
Barn Swallow, a Rare Time on Land
Barn Swallow, a Rare Time on Land | Source

Zero in On Those Insects...

This bird has been more welcome than any other on farms, as it eats so many insects that destroy crops. It generally nests inside barns, outbuildings, and other buildings. It is the sole North American swallow with buff to cinnamon underparts, underwings, and a deeply forked white tail. That’s why this bird appears to look different to people all over the continent. The female is similar to the male, perhaps a little duller in coloration. The young have shorter forked tails, of course, and creamy white underparts. This swallow has been found wintering or breeding on nearly all the continents.

Although typically one tends to think of the small passerines as insectivores, many birds eat insects. Many insectivorous species turn to other diets at other times of the year, which is why they possess small, all-purpose bills. It just isn’t always possible to be a full-time insectivore in temperate areas.

Barn Swallows
Barn Swallows | Source

Feeding and Courtship

Swifts and swallows both take very tiny prey such as aphids and young spiders that are being blown along on their gossamer threads. Insects are caught in flight, and they feed close to ground or water. When they are seen skimming water, they are picking up prey. They will follow farm machinery and lawn mowers, to feed on the stirred-up insects.

Courtship is interesting. Flights could include the pairs dropping and catching feathers in mid-air, and upon landing, they may engage in mutual preening. Each bird shows very strong site fidelity, and colonies could exist over great periods of time on the same site. Even the same individuals will build nests on the same site used the year before.

Raising Young

When raising young, swifts take back large boluses of insects to their nestlings. It may take hours to collect the large ball of insects, and some of the young will only be fed four or five times a day, or perhaps less, if the weather is cold and insects just are not available. All these birds that feed on aerial insects are dependent upon a good supply year round, they don’t change their diet. Almost all birds that hunt prey in the temperate zones spend the winter in more tropical climates.

Typical Swallow Nest.  This one was made out of mud.
Typical Swallow Nest. This one was made out of mud. | Source

The Unusual Nests

The cup-shaped nests are made of clay or mud, dried stems, grass, and straw, with a thick lining of horsehair, down, and feathers. Both sexes build the nest, which may be found in ridges of cliffs, under bridges and culverts, attached to a riverbank, inside barns or other buildings. There are usually two broods per year, unless these birds are in the northern climate zones.

Barn Swallow:  Strike a Pose!
Barn Swallow: Strike a Pose! | Source

Why Do Birds Build Nests Where They Do?

There are two chief ways in which birds in general seek to protect their nests. The most widely used, especially with small birds like these, is concealment. By hiding the nest in an out-of-the-way place, covering it with camouflage material, and taking care to visit it in a cautious way in order to not draw attention to it, birds hope to protect their young. The second method is to put the nest in inaccessible places, which is the case with these birds. These birds generally group together, which is another term for gregarious.

These Birds Were Made That Way!

These birds are distinctive and very cosmopolitan. Many of them are commonly known as martins, though there is no significant difference between swallows and martins. All of them have long wings and agile flight, and almost feed entirely upon the insects that they catch in the air. The neck and legs are short, and the feet are small and weak, most notably due to the fact that they are constantly in flight. The only time that they seem to cease this activity is when they are actively nesting. They are rarely found on the ground, as they are clumsy there, and know that they would be a target for prey. One of the swallow’s most outstanding feature is the short, flattened, and broad bill which can be opened in a very wide gape, which forms a very highly effective insect trap. It also acts as a trowel for scooping up mud for nest building.

Barn Swallow Perching on Driftwood
Barn Swallow Perching on Driftwood | Source
Look at Those Irridescent Colors
Look at Those Irridescent Colors | Source
Barn Swallows(Left) with Bank Swallow(Right)
Barn Swallows(Left) with Bank Swallow(Right) | Source


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    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, Agustin. There are plenty more photos where this came from, and I have a couple of area trips planned this year, so stay tuned for more:

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      I have loved all of your AMAZING photos from your trip. We went on a trip last year and hiked in the rain foesrt. It was awesome and I long to go back there daily. I hope that you have a wonderful week. Saw you again on Fit and Fun. You look fabulous as always!

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, CC! Coming from you, that is always a compliment.

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 

      6 years ago from Western NC

      I LOVE birds! They're such beautiful creatures and have so much symbolism for me in my life. Your pictures are beautiful as always and this is a beautiful, well-laid-out hub! Nice!

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Yes, grandmapearl, they are interesting. They have been called "Cigars with Wings."

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Your photos are terrific as usual. I had never seen this bird 'up close and personal' before. My Mom had a huge lawn she mowed every week. It was so much fun to watch the barn swallows snatching all the insects she stirred up. She always wore a straw hat so she couldn't see them swooping over her head and instinctively duck! We recently visited some friends who have a cottage on a nearby lake. There were dozens of swallows flying out from the steep banks around the lake to catch bugs on the wing. A fascinating and transfixing sight. It was hard to leave there! Voted Up and interesting.

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Yes, Jackie. The reason that I found it was because the lake is so low, and I went on foot around the outskirts, and there it was.

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Birds have such interesting talents, Hecate-Horus. Look forward to my piece late on this summer about some of the shocking tropical birds that will make your head spin!

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, Joyce. As usual, I'm having fun at the lake.

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      They are interesting, Keith. I'm just so fortunate that I'm surrounded by such great birds.

    • aviannovice profile imageAUTHOR

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Thanks, Johan. I'm just glad that I have them close by to watch them and observe their traits myself.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      6 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Wow, I had no idea those were swallows nests, I bet many get destroyed so I will certainly pass the word. I have seen so many and wondered what they were and would have never guessed!

      So interesting!

    • hecate-horus profile image


      6 years ago from Rowland Woods

      Great facts and pictures! They drop and catch their feathers in midair? That's quite a talent! Voted up and interesting.

    • writer20 profile image

      Joyce Haragsim 

      6 years ago from Southern Nevada

      Wonderful read thank you. Your photo's are amazing.

      Voted up beautiful and interesting.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      A cosmopolitan martian bird, eh? These birds sound extremely interesting. I haven't even heard of the Barn Swallows up until now. Very informative and insightful!

    • Johan Smulders profile image

      Johan Smulders 

      6 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Interresting info and good photos as usual!


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