Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Barn Swallow--Hirundo rustica

Copyright Karen McQuade, OC Birder Girl 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.

The most noticeable thing about Barn Swallows is their deeply forked tail. They are dark blue and dark chestnut on their heads and back. Their chests and belly are a lighter buffy-rufous color. They have short, wide beaks perfect for catching insects as they fly low over water and fields. The female is similar to the male, but lighter in color.

Blowing in the Wind.

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.

Barn Swallow singing on the No-Fishing Sign.
Barn Swallows tend to be seen flying low over water especially and sometimes over fields. They fly close to the ground or water with their short, wide bill open to catch their favorite food, insects. They catch them as they fly. Barn Swallows are very skilled fliers, swooping in and out along pathways at San Joaquin, and low over the water there and at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Mason Regional Park, Huntington Central Park, and any place with water including small lakes and ponds. You can recognize them by the metallic blue upper parts as the whiz by and the glimpse of the their trademark deeply forked tail. I have also seen them at Long Beach by the Catalina Express swooping along the surface of the water.

Barn Swallow on the nest in Huntington Beach. It is made of mud and grass.

Nests are open and made of mud, grass, animal hair, and feathers. The mud itself researchers say consists of sand, silt, and clay. You can see the little mouth fulls of mud stuck together with grass to form an open cup. (Sometimes they use old mud nests either of their own or another bird that builds a mud nest.) Like many Barn Swallow nests, the nest above is close to an overhang. They are also often build on ledges. Barn Swallows lay an average of about 5 eggs. The babies really get noisy when Mom or Dad returns with food. They stick their heads out and open their very large mouths. They don't want the parents to miss them. Barn Swallows have switched from nesting in caves to utilizing human structures including barns to build their nests in and on. Human dwellings have provided them with many nesting sites. They also build nests under docks. Parents remove fecal sacs for young nestlings, but older nestlings defecate over the side of the nest. So watch where you stand.

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.

Barn Swallow Nest from You Tube.

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.

Copyright Karen McQuade, OC Birder Girl

Barn Swallow Male. Note the long, forked tail.

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.

Copyright Karen McQuade, OC Birder Girl


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.

Barn Swallow on the Ledge

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.

Copyright Karen McQuade, OC Birder Girl Front View of Male Barn Swallow

Loggerhead Shrike--Lanius ludovicianus

Osprey--Pandion haliaetus

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.

Animal Diversity Web: Barn Swallow

Thorough article on the Barn Swallow. Lots of information.

Animal Planet's Wild Bird Guide: Barn Swallow

Short article. Awesome picture.

BioKids: Barn Swallow

Great article for kids and adults.

BirdWeb: Barn Swallows

Good information from Seattle Audubon.

Chipperwood Bird Observatory: Barn Swallow

Great information and pictures from the Chipperwood Bird Observatory in Indiana.

Colonial Breeding in the Barn Swallow (Hirundo Rustica) and Its Adaptive Significance

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.

By Rebecca J. Safran. She discusses her participation in a study of color and mate selection in North American Barn Swallows.

Helpers at the Nest in Barn Swallows

(Auk: Vol. 94, No. 3, July-September, 1977)


(Journal of Field Ornithology: Vol. 60, No. 3, Summer, 1989) Recorded instances of how those notorious House Sparrows interfere with Barn Swallow nests.

Internet Bird Collection

High quality videos.

(Wilson Bulletin: Vol. 87, No. 1, January-March, 1975)

National Wildlife Federation: Barn Swallow Migration

Good article on Barn Swallow Migration.

Nature Works: Swallows

Good article on the swallows.

(Wilson Bulletin: Vol. 89, No. 4, October-December, 1977)

(North American Bird Bander: Vol. 10, No. 1, January-March, 1985) I am beginning to think Tree Swallows are altruistic. They help Western Bluebirds and Barn Swallows. What a bird.

State of Washington: Living with Wildlife

USGS: Barn Swallow

Short, but good article.

NOTE: ALL Photographs are copyright Karen McQuade aka The OC Birder Girl. Unauthorized copying is prohibited.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for all this information! I noticed a flock of birds above my house and couldn't determine what species of birds they were.The birds were flying too fast and I never saw them land. Your links had some great pictures of the birds in flight and helped me to identify them as Barn swallows. Your blog was very helpful to me!