Male Barn Swallow perched on sign on private property in Huntington Beach.
I couldn't believe my luck when I stumbled upon a little group of swallows on private property in Huntington Beach. I asked if I could take some pictures and received permission. Despite the clouds and rain that day, the sun came out for several beautiful shots.
Barn Swallow on pipe. Notice the deeply forked tail. Easy to spot in flight.
Barn Swallows are the most widespread swallow species in the world. They are present in Orange County in Spring and summer. I have noticed a few at other times of year. In North America, they breed throughout the United States and Canada and parts of Mexico. The only places Barn Swallows cannot be found are in Australia and Antarctica. With that many Barn Swallows all over the world, you might guess that there are several subspecies, and you would be right. There are six subspecies of Barn Swallows world-wide.
Cliff Swallow Nest for comparison--enclosed with a tunnel to the nest. Picture taken at the Lion Enclosure at the San Diego Wild Animal Park.
Pairs form during Spring of each year. Repeat pairing are not unusual--especially among successful pairs. Females tend to pick males for symmetry of tails and wing, length of tail feathers, and color. Especially in North America, females like males with redder chests. Breeding season is May through August, though in Southern California, you may see them earlier. I have seen Barn Swallows nesting as early as late March.
In a very interesting North American study (see references below), the chest feathers of barn swallows were darkened to the color of the darkest males in the area. Suddenly these little guys became popular. The researchers where surprised to discover that the male birds they had darkened had an increase in their testosterone levels. The extra attention really had an affect on these male swallows. They were definitely more successful in breeding.
Like other birds, swallows sometimes have helpers. Barn Swallows are no different. They sometimes have birds who are not one of the mated pair who help defend the nest. These helpers are often male and evidently may have ulterior motives, because they may mate with the female on occasion as well. They do not help feed the offspring. The mated pair--mostly the female feed them the insects they catch in a pellet-like form. Immature Barn Swallow may assist in the feeding of nestling. (Read my post on Western Bluebird--Sialia mexicana to learn about Tree Swallows helping the Western Bluebird.) Tree Swallows are evidently pretty helpful. A nature center in Illinois put some orphaned Barn Swallows in a Tree Swallow nest and they raised them right along with their own.
Barn Swallows. Notice the short, wide beak, perfect for gathering insects as it swoops through the air.
Barn Swallows tend to nest together in colonies. Perhaps it is safety in numbers of perhaps a good nesting area is a popular one. They also like to sing together in pairs and as a group. They are a social kind of bird. You usually don't see one Barn Swallow, you see a large group.
Predators mostly target the nestlings. The predators are varied. From bullfrogs to owls. Hawks, Falcons, and Owls target the adult Barn Swallow as well, but their swift, skilled flight leaves many predators behind in the dust. They do form a helpful relationship with one raptor, the Osprey. They often nest near the Osprey who intimidates other predators due to sheer size. The Barn Swallows provide an early and loud warning system when there is danger afoot.
Most Barn Swallows live about 4 years with some exceptional individuals living twice as long. They will defend their nests against predators by mobbing species like Boat-tailed Grackles, Red-winged Black Birds, Snowy Egrets, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Loggerhead Shrikes, and others. These gregarious birds hang out together for protection and social interaction.
Two Barn Swallows on a light fixture.
When you are out birding in Spring and Summer, don't forget to watch low to the ground and water for the swift flying bird with the deeply forked tail. You may well see the Barn Swallow.
OC Birder Girl Links
Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
Huntington Central Park
Mason Regional Park
San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary
Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve aka Newport Back Bay
Birding Hot Spots in Orange County, California
Black Phoebe--Sayornis nigricans
All About Birds: Barn Swallow
Detailed article about Barn Swallows.
(Wilson Bulletin: Vol. 89, No. 4, October-December, 1977) These researchers got into the mud and figured out what was in it. Conclusions show the differences in mud may be related to the different types of nests built by Cliff and Barn Swallows.
Great article for kids and adults.
Snapp explores the significance of colonial breeding in Barn Swallows. (Condor: Vol. 78, No. 4, July-August, 1976)
For Barn Swallows, Feathers Make the Man, says CU-Boulder study
Artificially dyed male Barn Swallows get boost in hormones just by looking good. Watch the video about the study here.
Cornell: Shades of Fidelity--Barn Swallow DNA study finds that when it comes to faithfulness, redder is better
(Auk: Vol. 94, No. 3, July-September, 1977)
Internet Bird Collection
High quality videos.
National Wildlife Federation: Barn Swallow Migration
Good article on Barn Swallow Migration.
Nature Works: Swallows
Good article on the swallows.
USGS: Barn Swallow
Short, but good article.