Barn swallows are considered as heralds of spring and rejuvenation of life. The weather used to be predicted by their flight. Famous for their acrobatic flight and deep-forked tail, these little birds have inspired mythological stories, inspired poets, and even been mentioned in the Bible.
Did You Know?
Swallows represent love, affection, loyalty, freedom, and care.
Legend has it that a barn swallow stole fire from the gods to bring it to the people on Earth. In fury of this treachery, the deity flung fire arrows at the little bird, which resulted in the burning of the middle of its tail; giving the bird its distinct fork tail.
Swallow’s unique physical characteristic has inspired sailors and youth of many generations to immortalize them on their bodies in the form of tattoos, depicting their journey, pride, honor, trust, strength, fertility, good luck, hope, new beginning, eternal love, and loyalty.
Species: Hirundo rustica or H. Rustica
A barn swallow looks like a conical sparrow, with a flatter head, pointed-tapered wings, and a distinct deep-forked tail. It is anywhere between 6½ to 7½ inches long, with 12½- to 13½-inch wingspan. It’s known for its blackish-cobalt-blue overcoat and tawny breast and underpart. In contrast to this is its dull rusty-brown colored throat and forehead. The females are less brightly colored than their male counterparts.
Barn swallows are acrobat experts in the sky, and are capable of taking sharp, unexpected turns and twists, swooping down and lunging up with a magnificent thrust, in pursuit of catching their prey. They spend a majority time of their time in the air, descending only to feed themselves and their little ones.
The gestation period ranges from 13 – 16 days. A female can lay 4 – 7 eggs, and these eggs are mostly incubated by the females themselves. The chicks are cared for by both the parents, and become fully independent by around two weeks of age. Swallows can produce two broods per season. Often unrelated birds of the same kettle may help raise the chicks.
Males and females help build the nest together. They collect mud, grass, stems, and twigs for this purpose. Using their bills, they make pellets which are used to construct their nests. They build a shelf-like structure to sit on, and then build the walls. The nests are semicircular or half-cup shaped.
They can even choose to reuse their old nests. In such cases, they clean out the old inner lining and add new mud wherever required, and avoid those nests infested with mites or other parasite.
Barn swallows are at times found to be polygamous during one mating cycle, and nest closer to each other and help each other incubate, protect, and feed their young ones. They originally nested in caves and tree trunks; however, civilization has forced them to share their habitats with humans, relocating them to eaves, cross beams, sheds and stables, bridges, rafters, and culverts.
Their diet mainly consists of flies, bees, beetles, wasps, ants, moths, butterflies, and any flying insect. At times, they have been found eating fine gravel and crushed eggshells, which helps them with their digestion.
These birds are long-distant migrants, and fly south for the winter where it is warmer, making it easy to incubate their eggs and find food and water. Barn swallows fly from North America to parts of Central and South America, which starts in late June or early July. They return between late January to mid May.
An in-flight or perched barn swallow has a cheerful, high-pitched, squeaky warbling sound. This call can be in repetition during flight. A chirp, when threatened, lets out a screechy whistle indicating that the threat is closing in. Twitter-warble songs are a demonstration of courtship and egg laying, which can last anywhere between 5 to 20 seconds, often followed by single individual chirps.
Females are attracted to males with longer and symmetrical tails.
A group of barn swallows is known as a ‘kettle’.
Their swift, acrobatic flight is no match for their predators. They are at threat by humans, owls, hawks, falcons, cats, gulls, grackles, rats, fire ants, racoons, bobcats, squirrels, weasels, snakes, and bullfrogs.
They are one of the fastest in the swallow family, with their flying speed ranging up to 46 mph.
An unmated male may break up an existing pair by successfully destroying their nest.
Barn swallows sometimes get help from others while raising their young. These helpers can often be older siblings from previous clutches.
They sometimes live in symbiotic relationship with ospreys. The swallows build a nest below the osprey’s nest. This protects their nest from other predators, which are driven away by the osprey. The barn swallow gives an alarm call when it sights a threat, alerting the osprey.
This species is federally protected. No lethal control can be issued for swallows. A permit is not issued to remove a swallow nest under construction, constructed, with or without eggs, and/or abandoned. If an adult swallow is occupying even a half-built nest or a fully-built nest, regardless of eggs, then the law protects it.
They were once killed for their tail feathers, which led to the creation of a law, making it illegal to possess even a single feather.
On an average, these birds live for around 4 to 5 years, though the lifespan varies considerably depending on various factors.
Egyptian mythology has linked swallows with stars, thus linking them to the souls of the dead. In an Egyptian love poem, a swallow declares the dawn of new love.
This bird has been linked with Greek mythology, and legend has it that Procne was transformed into a swallow by the gods to protect her from her husband King Tereus of Thrace. These birds also appear in a Greek mythological story with the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite.
These magnificent creatures of the sky spend most of their lives flying freely. Their flight is captivating, unpredictable, and spectacular. This elegance of theirs has captivated the imagination of many around the world. From gods to sailors, this bird has impressed one and all.