Barn SwallowHirundo rustica

adult male
Gerard Bailey/VIREO
adult female
Greg Lasley/VIREO
juvenile
Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO
adult
Rob Curtis/VIREO

Family

Description

One of our most familiar birds in rural areas and semi-open country, this swallow is often seen skimming low over fields with a flowing, graceful flight. It seems to have adopted humans as neighbors, typically placing its nest in barns or garages, or under bridges or wharves; indeed, it is now rare to find a Barn Swallow nest in a site that is not manmade. The species is also common across Europe and Asia, wintering to southern Africa and South America.

Habitat

Open or semi-open land, farms, fields, marshes, lakes. May occur in any kind of open or partly open terrain, especially near water, generally avoiding very dry country and unbroken forest. Often breeds around farms, buildings, towns, and forages over fields or ponds.

Feeding Diet

Insects. Feeds on a wide variety of flying insects, especially flies (including house flies and horse flies), beetles, wasps, wild bees, winged ants, and true bugs. Also eats some moths, damselflies, grasshoppers, and other insects, and a few spiders and snails. Only occasionally eats a few berries or seeds.

Feeding Behavior

Food is mostly captured and eaten in the air. Often forages quite low over water or fields. In bad weather, may sometimes feed on the ground.

Nesting

Courtship involves aerial chases. On perch, mated pair sit close together, touch bills, preen each other's feathers. Several pairs may nest in same immediate area, but does not form dense colonies like some swallows. Nest: Original natural sites were in sheltered crevices in cliffs or shallow caves. Sites used today are mostly in open buildings, under eaves, under bridges or docks, or similar places. Nest (built by both sexes) is a cup of mud and dried grass, lined with feathers. Eggs: 4-5, sometimes 6, rarely 7. White, spotted with brown. Incubation is by both sexes (female does more), 13-17 days. Young: Both parents feed young. One or two additional birds, the pair's offspring from previous broods, may attend the nest and sometimes feed the nestlings. Young leave the nest about 18-23 days after hatching. 1 or 2 broods per year.

Eggs

4-5, sometimes 6, rarely 7. White, spotted with brown. Incubation is by both sexes (female does more), 13-17 days. Young: Both parents feed young. One or two additional birds, the pair's offspring from previous broods, may attend the nest and sometimes feed the nestlings. Young leave the nest about 18-23 days after hatching. 1 or 2 broods per year.

Young

Both parents feed young. One or two additional birds, the pair's offspring from previous broods, may attend the nest and sometimes feed the nestlings. Young leave the nest about 18-23 days after hatching. 1 or 2 broods per year.

Conservation

Local declines noted in a few areas, but still widespread and abundant.

Range

Migrates in flocks, mostly by day. Southward migration is well under way by mid-August.

Listen

song
begging young
chideep alarm calls
excited dawn song
other calls

Similar Species

adult

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Two kinds of brown-backed swallows nest in holes in dirt banks. The Rough-wing is the solitary one, not nesting in colonies like the Bank Swallow. It is usually seen singly or in small groups, even during migration, in rapid low flight over rivers or fields. The name "Rough-winged" comes from small serrations on the outermost wing feathers. The function of these is unknown, but they may produce sounds during courtship flights.

adult male

Tree Swallow

The popularity of the bluebird has been a boon to the Tree Swallow, which nests in holes of exactly the same size, and has taken advantage of bluebird houses over much of North America. In regions with no such ready supply of artificial nest sites, the swallows must compete with other cavity-nesting birds, arriving early in spring to stake out territories. Unlike other swallows, Tree Swallows eat many berries (especially bayberries), allowing them to survive through wintry spells when other insect-eaters might starve.

adult male

Violet-green Swallow

A small swallow of the west, nesting from Alaska to central Mexico. Similar to the Tree Swallow in appearance and also in behavior, nesting in tree cavities and in birdhouses; it also will nest in rock crevices of cliffs in rugged terrain. Flocks are often seen flying high over mountain pine forests or over steep canyons.

adult

Cave Swallow

As recently as the 1960s, this was a rare bird in the United States. It nested only in a few southwestern caves, plastering its cuplike mud nest against the walls in the dimly lit interior. Since then it has "learned" to nest in artificial sites, in culverts and under bridges, and it has become a common summer bird across much of Texas and southern New Mexico (with an outlying colony in Florida). In some places, Cave Swallows may actively compete with Cliff Swallows for these artificial nest sites.

adult

Cliff Swallow

This swallow is probably far more common today than when the Pilgrims landed. Originally it built its jug-shaped mud nests on the sides of cliffs. However, the sides of barns and the supports of bridges provided sheltered sites that were far more widespread than the natural ones. Taking advantage of these artificial locations, the species has invaded many areas where it never nested before. Although it is continuing to spread in the east, it is still more common in the west, where practically every culvert and highway bridge seems to have its own Cliff Swallow colony.

adult male

Purple Martin

Graceful in flight, musical in its pre-dawn singing, this big swallow is one of our most popular birds. Almost all Purple Martins in the east now nest in birdhouses put up especially for them. Martin housing has a long history: some Native American tribes reportedly hung up hollow gourds around their villages to attract these birds. Purple Martins migrate to South America for the winter, but before leaving, they may gather to roost in groups of thousands in late summer.

adult

Bank Swallow

The smallest of our swallows, the Bank Swallow is usually seen in flocks, flying low over ponds and rivers with quick, fluttery wingbeats. It nests in dense colonies, in holes in dirt or sand banks. Some of these colonies are quite large, and a tall cut bank may be pockmarked with several hundred holes. Despite their small size, tiny bills, and small feet, these swallows generally dig their own nesting burrows, sometimes up to five feet long.

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