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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Common in rural Ky., the Barn Swallow is an acrobatic bird at home around humans


The Barn Swallow is an acrobatic bird, with its distinctive profile in flight, that’s at home around humans, nesting on bridge abutments, the rafters of barns, sheds, and the eaves of porches.

They are most numerous in rural Kentucky, often observed along roadsides, flying over fields and pastures.

A male barn swallow (Photo courtesy of National Audubon Society)

The Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica, is a member of family Hirundinidae, and was first described in 1815 by French naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840).

Rafinesque was a botany and natural science professor at Transylvania University between 1819 and 1826, in Lexington.

Coloration and Size

Coloration is dark blue above (head and back), with a rust-colored throat, white breast, and grayish wings.

Both sexes have similar colored plumage, but males have tail feathers that are about 20 percent longer than females.

Fledged juveniles usually appear as duller versions of the adult.

The Barn Swallow is adapted to hunting insects on the wing.

It has a slender, streamlined body, long pointed wings, which allow for great maneuverability, and a distinctive forked tail.

Their bills are short and wide, but they have strong jaws and a wide gape. Their tall, wide eyes, give them acute frontal and lateral vision, to help track prey. The morphology of their eyes is similar to that of raptors.

Adults can have a body length of up to nine inches and weigh more than two ounces. Their legs are short, and their feet are adapted for perching rather than walking. Their bill, legs and feet are dark brown or black.

The Barn Swallow is an acrobatic bird with a distinctive profile in flight (Photo courtesy of National Audubon Society)


Range and Distribution

There are about 90 species in the swallow family Hirundinidae, with the greatest diversity found in Africa, where they are thought to have evolved as hole-nesters.

The Barn Swallow is common throughout Kentucky, but less numerous in the heavily-forested, far eastern reaches of the state.

Its breeding range includes most of North America, but they are absent from Alaska, Florida, southern California, and Baja California.

In Kentucky, Barn Swallows arrive early and depart early.

They migrate in flocks, mostly by day, to South America for the winter. Southward migration is well under way by mid-August. They arrive back in Kentucky in late March or April.

Habitat

Barn Swallows prefer open or semi-open land, particularly farm crop fields and pastures, and open water, such as farm ponds or lakes.

They are very visible at hay cutting time, zipping across fields, grabbing insects aroused by the cutting of forage grasses.

Food Habits

Insects are captured and eaten on the wing. In rainy weather they sometimes feed on the ground.

Flying insects are their main food, especially house flies, horse flies, beetles, wasps, bees, and winged ants.

On the ground they may consume grasshoppers, and other insects. Rarely do they eat berries or seeds.

Reproduction and Nesting

Barn swallow nests, built by both sexes is a cup of dried mud and dried grass lined with feathers (Photo from Wikimedia Commons, Melissa McMasters)

Courtship involves aerial chases. On a perch, a mated pair may sit close together, touch bills, and preen each other’s feathers.

Females select mates on the basis of tail length.

Several pairs may nest in the same immediate area. Their nest, built by both sexes, is a cup of mud and dried grass, lined with feathers. Nests can be up to 25 feet above the ground, and may be used in successive years.

Females typically lay four to five white, spotted with brown, eggs.

Incubation is by both sexes, and is 13 to 17 days long. The chicks hatch naked and with closed eyes.

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 to 23 days after hatching.

A pair may hatch off a second brood in July.

The Barn Swallow is like a guided missile, twisting and turning sharply in flight, often flying low over water or fields.

They are beautiful little birds that brighten up rural roadsides and dazzle us with their aerial displays of flying prowess.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.


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2 Comments

  1. Sterling Hard says:

    Mr. Lander,
    Please give me some advice, counsel, guidance and direction. I’m buying a property in Kentucky with an old tobacco barn in pretty good condition. For all the right reasons I would like it to be “home” to a number of nesting pairs of barn swallows.

    I’m retired, so I’ll just have a sizable vegetable garden, some milking goats for cheese, a burro/donkey to keep the coyotes away, a couple Irish Wolfhounds, some “free range” layers and no cats. I’ll let the native black rat snakes handles the vermin. My experience is that savvy swallows build nests that snakes can’t get to.

    So how do I go about establishing this barn as a “home” to which they’ll return every year. My kids loved the barn swallows on our place in Pennsylvania and my youngest daughter (now 30) is an avid birder. The grandkids deserve the same memories.

    Thank you.

    • Judy Clabes says:

      Passing along Art Lander advice: My advice would be to call the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (800) 858-1549, and ask for avian biologists Kate Slankard ext.4474, or Loren Taylor ext. 4475. They can offer advice and answer any questions about swallows…

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