What Is It Wednesday: Barn Swallow

Name: Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

Barn Swallows are very distinguishable by the blue of their head, wings, and tail against the rusty cinnamon of their chest and belly. Their forked tail adorned with white spots is a dead giveaway while in flight, as is the fluidity of their wingbeats and their quick, acrobatic grace that allows them to make tight turns and dives in the blink of an eye. When perched, they tend to have what I like to call the hunched, grumpy stance. Their heads flatten into their body causing their neck to disappear, while their broad shoulders spread out. Very distinct and very cute.

Barn Swallows are aerial eaters, drinkers, and bathers, meaning they do these activities while in flight. You will often see these birds low to the ground or water surface catching flying insects in some form of open landscape, be it marsh, field, pond, ditches. or coastal lines. They’re after the relatively large and single flying insects, like flies and beetles, rather than swarms of tiny insects. Keeping this in mind, it is very unlikely that a Barn Swallow will visit your backyard feeder, but some may turn up if you place eggshells or oyster shells out on a flat surface. For drinking, Barn Swallows dip their beak in the water while passing by for a quick sip. For bathing, they will get close enough to the water that their bellies get a nice rinse.

Another distinction between the Barn Swallow and other swallows is the Barn Swallow’s preference for building nests is almost exclusively on man-made structures. Barns, of course, are favoured sites of these birds, but they also make their nests in sheds and culverts, under bridges and eaves, and in any man-made structure that offers some tucked away shelter and height. Their nests are cup-shaped and made primarily out of mud with an inner lining filled with grass, feathers, and sometimes stolen material from other nests. If you find an unoccupied Barn Swallow nest, it’s best to leave it alone. Barn Swallows will often return to pre-existing nests unless it has been infested by mites.

Barn Swallows are one of the most widespread and common swallow species in the world. That being said, they happen to be Threatened in Ontario. Ontario has seen a steep decline in Barn Swallow populations since the 1980s for reasons which are largely not understood. Some potential reasons could be the loss of nesting habitat from the destruction or collapse of older barns, the lack of access to the inner spaces of modernized barns, and the use of widespread pesticide spraying of agricultural fields which would reduce their insect food supply. Campaigns, like TTLT's Vision 20/20 Campaign, help to protect the natural and open areas used as feeding grounds for the Barn Swallow. Learn more about the Campaign or donate here.

Fun Fact: There is a legend of how the Barn Swallow’s tail came to be so uniquely forked. The legend goes that the Barn Swallow wanted to bring fire to the people, so it stole fire from the gods. This angered the gods and one of the angry deities threw down a fire ball at the bird, which resulted in the singeing of its middle tail feathers.