Barn Swallows — Not Just In Barns

Here is a typical conversation that I have with fellow birders when I’m trying to bird for swallows. “There’s a swallow. There it goes. Here it comes. I wish it would perch someplace.” Swallows fly a lot to catch those insects, so they are tough to identify. However, these chicks are a bit easier to identify while they’re in the nest.

Barn swallows are found from Alaska to Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Canadians also have the privilege of hosting them. You don’t have to be a farmer to enjoy the twittering of these birds.

Winter for these birds is spent in South America. They like the warmth of Lesser Antiles, Puerto Rico and the countries from Panama south to South America.

They migrate, mostly by day, to the north by a variety of routes. Most arrive in Florida in April, but they could wait until May, or even June. This delicate bird follows the tree swallows, which migrate from March to mid-May. Then, the barn swallows head south again in September.

The first task up north is to fly over and inspect the nesting sites they previously used. Anybody with a barn can be a host to them. I don’t have any in my 90-year-old barn, but I have bats. I wonder if the night-flying species scare off the swallows? House sparrows aren’t afraid of the bats, so why don’t I have the swallows? Maybe because I keep my barn doors closed. I could try nailing a 2-by-4-foot, un-planed joist to the outside of the barn.

Besides in barns, look for the nests on ledges, sides of buildings, caves, culverts, under bridges or in holes in cliffs. They also like to nests in colonies. Sometimes they return to the same nest and mate. Materials used for building the nests include mud, straw, and feathers for lining.

My property has lots of food to attract these swallows. I would really like for them to feast on the insects. In my natural yard, I also have lots of seeds. Then, blackberries are bountiful. A neighbor gave me red raspberries a long time ago. When my blueberries are bearing fruit in another couple of years, I will cover them with netting. No birds are welcome to them. I draw the line there.

Let’s learn about their family life. The first task is to fly over and inspect the nesting sites they previously used. If they find the building closed, you might see them fly around your house. They do that until somebody figures out that they need to open a window or door. The bird enters and twitters. Farmers often cut a hole in the barn to avoid this whole problem. Some unusual nesting sites reported include a building that was moved after they had commenced nesting. That reminds me of humans in a travel trailer. They also have set up house (nest) on moving trains and boats. Remember my article about phoebes? Barn swallows will also reside under bridges.

After the pair is settled in, the males will perform graceful flight displays. Through the barn, around the barnyard, around the other buildings and over the fields they fly. That is totally to impress the female. When she is sure that she likes him, she invites him to join her by twitching her wings and tail and moving her head from side to side. The male can’t resist. He joins her and they run their heads and necks together, interlock the bills and preen. Sounds very romantic to me.

It takes them from seven-14 days to lay the eggs. The males sometimes help incubate the eggs.

Look for these swallows with rough-winged and cliff swallows perching on telephone wires. I’ll never forget the time that I saw all of the local swallow species sitting on a wire, just up the road from Jamestown Audubon.