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Barn Swallow

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Our international summer visitor

Our region is rich in swallows. I count six species: Barn swallow, Cliff swallow, Bank swallow, Northern Rough-winged swallow, Tree swallow, and Violet-green swallow. And while they are all very similar, such as feeding on flying insects while on the wing, they’ve learned to share the space by exploiting different nesting habitats. Some nest in trees or nest boxes (Tree and Violet-green); others in river banks (Bank and Northern Rough-winged). Two of them go the next step further and construct their own nests out of mud. The Cliff swallow builds little mud jugs under the eaves of buildings or other large structures such as bridges. The Barn Swallow—our bird of the month—does something similar, but is content to settle for a more open, half-cup design. 

The Barn Swallow is the most widely spread species of swallow, ranging across every continent, except the Antarctic. Around the globe these birds breed in the Northern Hemisphere and spend the off-season in the Southern Hemisphere. The birds we see here in our area spend the winter in Central or South America. The species seems to have benefited by the development of human habitations, as they almost exclusively build their nests on man-made structures. Traditionally these birds built their nests on cliff faces or in caves, a practice that is now the exception and rarely observed. 

The identification of Barn Swallows is easy to separate out from our other swallows species, simply because it is the only one with a true, deeply forked, “swallow tail.” A couple others like the Violet-green and the Bank are slightly notched, but nothing compared to the Barn Swallow’s tail. It is a distinctive feature and an excellent field mark. Just look for those long, sweeping, two-tined forks in over-flying birds. The Barn swallow is also often seen alighting near mud puddles. Here they are gathering up mouthfuls of mud with which to construct their nests. Cliff swallows have the same habit. 

In fact, the Cliff swallow and the Barn swallow share similar colorations and, were it not for that forked tail, they might be more difficult to differentiate. While both share coloration that is dominated by dark blues and rusty reds above and tawny-whites below, the Cliff swallow has a distinctive—though sometimes difficult to see—buff-colored collar around its neck. But honestly, that stumpy square tail on the Cliff swallow is as plain as can be and eliminates all confusion between the two species. Also, the Barn swallow lacks the buff-colored rump of the Cliff swallow, giving it a smoother, more uniform look. And when on the wing, the Cliff swallow looks squat and dumpy compared to the sleek and elegant Barn swallow. That’s just the way it is. 

Swallows mate for life and may even attempt to reuse the prior year’s nest. I can imagine that building these nests can’t be particularly pleasant, so I’d want to reuse the old one, too! And, hey, if the old nest survived the winter, that must be a good indicator of workmanship, I mean work-bird-ship… whatever.

I was intrigued by the name of the bird—“swallow”—and spent some time on the Internet trying to determine the origins of the word. Unfortunately, the name is so old that it goes back to the original Proto-Indo-European language—the one most European languages are all derived from. This bird has a long association with humans. 

For me, the swallows in general are a harbinger of spring. You know that when the swallows appear, warm weather is soon to follow. And while I enjoy all the swallow species, I find the Barn swallow to be the prettiest to watch, if only because of that wonderful tail. At least they’re easy to identify, because, ironically, they are the only species in our region that has a “real” swallow tail!

Happy birding! 

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, A Bird in Hand, barn swallow

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