Bird of the Week #14: Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow on the Ground

Continuing the trend of doing something a little different, this week we’ll be looking at what one of my good friends calls avian fighter jets. And that’s an apt description! Go outside in an open area during a warm summer or spring day and you’ll probably see these little birds with forked tails performing all sorts of aerial acrobatics, swooping and diving. They’re quite the sight!

Barn Swallows are a summer-only bird in all of North America. During the cold months, they migrate down south, going as far as the southern tip of Argentina. Barn Swallows are incredible migrators, with an even more incredible sense of geography. Barn Swallows will return to nest at the exact same spot they did in the previous year. Case in point, Frank and Deborah.

Barn Swallow Couple
Barn Swallows have an amazing ability to latch onto any surface, like Spider-Bird!

I got to know Frank and Deborah last year at work where I observed a Barn Swallow couple build a nest, lay eggs, and hatch and raise fledglings all from start to finish. It was wonderful experience! And, to my delight, Frank and Deborah returned and have rebuilt their nest at the exact same spot as they did last year.

How do I know it’s the exact same birds? Come to think of it, I really have no way of being 100% sure, but after doing some reading on Barn Swallows and seeing that the nest is in exactly the same spot, I’m inclined to believe these are the same two birds. Besides, it’s way more fun to think that Frank and Deborah have returned to the very same spot!

Why Frank and Deborah? They told me, duh.

Let’s talk about the birds in general.

Barn Swallows are insectivores, meaning they eat nothing but bugs. They won’t eat just any bugs. Barn swallows eat their bugs almost exclusively from the air, seldomly grabbing them from water or plants. Remember how I told you they maneuver around like fighter jets? That’s how they capture their prey. The Barn Swallow will use its excellent vision to detect an insect flying through the air then swoop in for the attack. Bugs are moving targets though and some can move unpredictably. The Barn Swallow is ready, though, with its aerodynamic body and special forked tail designed to make it turn on a dime.

Barn Swallows build their nests on human structures, most famously on barns, thus their name. In days past, they would construct their mud and stick nests on cliffs or in caves, but our buildings are just easier for them to work with. Unlike rocks, the walls we build are perfectly straight and have little variation. Look for Barn Swallow nests in shady parts on buildings close to open fields or bodies of water. They like having a lot of bugs around and they like having a lot of room to practice their acrobatics.

Barn Swallow Flying
I must have taken a hundred blurry pictures of these two in flight, trying to get just one decent one.

Watching them build their nests is fascinating. The owners of the building where Frank and Deborah built theirs tore it down after they migrated back down south, so they had to rebuild this year. They grab lots and lots of mud, making little round “bricks” and sticking them together to the wall. They’ll use twigs and straw bits to help stick it all together. Eventually, all of this will come together to make a clay bowl where they’ll raise their young.

I find Barn Swallows gorgeous. Their navy blue topsides and light brown undersides make them pleasing to my eye. You can differentiate males and females by the undersides, with females being more white on the bottom. The boys will be more of a brown or cinnamon color.

I’ve been excited to do a Barn Swallow post for a while now, but I just haven’t come up with the pictures to make it worthwhile. I’ll definitely more of Frank and Deborah in the weeks to come, and hopefully there will be some pictures of their chicks!

What do you think of Barn Swallows? Do you see them in your area?

Cornell Lab page on Barn Swallows

Audubon Society page on Barn Swallows

Side note: for the first time ever, I’m including a mini-gallery below of pictures I’ve taken of the week’s bird. Please let me know what you think! I’m not opposed to eventually going back and fixing up old Bird of the Week posts, if y’all appreciate having this as a feature.

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