Barn swallows are one of the sure signs of summer. At our barn we probably have eight nesting pairs and it’s a treat to watch them perform their aerobatics above the pastures — they are amazing flyers who spend more time in the air than any other land bird and have been clocked flying as fast as 46 miles per hour. Although these birds originally nested in caves they figured out many generations ago that man-made structures, such as barns, are ideal homes.
Barn swallows usually nest in small colonies (called “kettles”) and also hunt together. When a cat or other predator approaches their nesting site, the entire colony immediately mob the intruder in an impressive display of aerial acrobatics. That behavior I can attest to — when I walk into the barn it results in a flurry of activity and some mighty irritated birds. They seem to accept the horses but humans, that’s a whole ‘nother story. Just as well they are such talented flyers. Although they’ve come close to my head, they haven’t actually hit me.
Old-time German farmers considered it good luck to have barn swallows nesting in their barns. They believed that their families, crops and livestock would prosper as long as they had barn swallows around.
These days barn swallows are appreciated for their appetite for insects, especially mosquitos. A single barn swallow can consume 60 insects per hour — up to 850 per day. That adds up to a whopping 25,000 insects a month. For that quality alone they are always welcome in our barn.
Barn swallows are very handsome birds with dark gleaming blue feathers on their backs and long forked tails. Unfortunately, their distinctive appearance was almost the cause of their demise. In the late 1800s they were killed en masse for use on decorative hats (hard to imagine walking around with dead, stuffed birds on your head — the feathers were also used). Concern about over harvesting sparked the bird conservation movement in the U.S. and led to the founding of the Audubon Society.
Barn swallows return to their previous year’s nests and live, on average, four years. I can’t say that I recognize any from the last few years but I do enjoy watching the nests fill with chicks as the summer progresses.
Apparently their appearance is a serious matter to the swallows, too. Studies show that female sparrows prefer males that have the longest and most symmetrical tails and the deepest red breast feathers. DNA testing reveals that females whose mates have pale breast feathers often sneak out of the nest to rendezvous with more striking males.