Known in Eurasia simply as 'the swallow,' the Barn Swallow is a
distinctive bird with bold plumage and a long, slender, deeply forked
tail. Barn Swallows are deep blue above, with an orange-buff breast
and belly. They have russet throats and forehead patches. The rest
of the head is deep blue, extending in a line through the eye, giving
the birds a masked appearance. Females are slightly duller and shorter-tailed
than males. Juveniles look similar to adults, but have much shorter
Barn Swallows need open areas to forage and suitable sites for nesting,
now almost always buildings, bridges, or other man-made structures.
They generally avoid unbroken forest and very dry areas. Their original
habitat was most likely mountainous areas and seacoasts with caves,
hollow trees, and rock crevices for nesting. Now that they have
adapted to living with humans, they are found in agricultural areas,
suburbs, and along highways--anywhere there are open areas and nesting
structures, especially if water is close by.
Barn Swallows can often be seen foraging for insects low over fields
or water. In bad weather, they sometimes forage on the ground. They
gather mud for their nests from mud puddles, although they do not
raise their wings when they do this as Cliff Swallows do.
Barn Swallows eat mostly flying insects, especially flies, although
they occasionally eat berries, seeds, and dead insects from the
While several Barn Swallows may nest near each other, they do not
form dense colonies. They are usually monogamous during the breeding
season, but extra-pair copulations are common, and new pairs form
each spring. Polygyny sometimes occurs, and helpers not only help
build and guard the nest but also incubate the eggs and brood the
young, although they generally do not feed the young. A few birds
still nest in caves, but 99% of the breeding Barn Swallows in Washington
now build their nests on eaves, bridges, docks, or other man-made
structures with a ledge that can support the nest, a vertical wall
to which it can be attached, and a roof. Both members of the pair
build the nest--a mass of mud, straw, feathers, and sticks. Barn
Swallow nests are relatively untidy. Both members of the pair incubate
the four to five eggs for 12 to 17 days, and both feed the young.
The young leave the nest 20 to 21 days after hatching.
Long-distance migrants, Barn Swallows congregate along canals or
field edges before they migrate in flocks, mostly along river valleys,
to Central and South America.
The killing of Barn Swallows for their feathers was one of the issues
that led to the founding of the Audubon Society and the passage
of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. These outlawed the killing of
birds without the appropriate license and made it illegal to possess
even a single feather of a protected bird. The Barn Swallow's close
association with humans in Europe goes back over 2,000 years. In
North America, the shift from natural to human-made nest sites was
nearly complete by the middle of the 20th Century. The Barn Swallow's
range has expanded considerably in North America with European settlement,
and Barn Swallows are widespread and abundant across their current