What’s that whipping through the sky with a forked tail trailing behind it? Is it a plane, a soaring superhero, or maybe… a barn swallow? These birds are the most widely distributed of all swallow species. They are highly agile flyers that skim close to the ground or water surfaces gobbling up tasty insects. Sometimes they fly SO close to the water that they are only a few centimeters above it!
Barn swallows love flying and are adapted to be incredibly agile. They not only feed mid flight but they also get water and sometimes even take a bath while flying! They will slow down a little while in flight, dip down and get a mouthful of water to drink or touch their stomachs to the water for a quick rinse. Sadly, these beautiful birds are disappearing; this species was recently listed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as threatened. Scientists see the decline in barn swallow populations as being caused by habitat loss, climate change and pesticide use. That’s why it’s up to all of us Earth Rangers to help protect the incredible barn swallow so that when we look up in the sky we can continue to see them zooming by!
Did you know… Legend has it that barn swallows got their distinctive forked tail by stealing fire from the gods to bring to people. This angered the gods so much that they threw a fireball at the barn swallow, which scorched their tail, leaving it with a distinctive fork. While not true, this legend draws attention to the characteristic forked tail of barn swallows.
What Does the Barn Swallow Look Like?
The barn swallow is a passerine songbird, which tells us two important things about them. First, they can carry a tune very well; second, when they perch they wrap their toes around the surface they land on (e.g. plant stem, piece of wood, edge of a nest). Passerine birds are able to perch in this way because they have three toes facing forward and one facing backward (anisodactyl) allowing them to grab onto surfaces when they land.
Male barn swallows are beautifully coloured, with an iridescent (shiny) blue head, back and underwings. Their forehead, chin and throat are a brightly coloured reddish-brown, which stands out against their whitish underside. Perhaps the easiest way to spot a barn swallow, however, is to look for their long forked tail. Female barn swallows have shorter tails than males and their colouring is less shiny. The males are 15-19 cm long with a tail reaching 2-7 cm long. Like many swallows, these birds also have tapered wings, which helps them to be such agile flyers.
Where Does the Barn Swallow Live?
Barn swallows are the most widespread swallow species in the world, living in every region except Australia and Antarctica. They are long distance migrants, breeding in northern areas then spending their summers in warmer southern climates. Barn swallow breeding colonies can be found across Canada in every province, making them a truly Canadian species. In Ontario and surrounding areas barn swallows arrive at their breeding colonies in April, heading back south to Central and South America in late July and early August. These songbirds prefer to live in open areas like grasslands where they can find tons of insects. They also need nearby shelters (barns) where they build their nests.
Barn swallows used to make their nests in caves but over hundreds of years they’ve adapted to living with people, and, as their name suggests, building their home in barns. Barn swallow nests can also be found on other types of sheltered ledges such as under bridges or the eaves of old houses.
Did you know … the only North American barn swallow population that still nests in caves can be found in the channel islands off the coast of California.
‘How To’ Guide For Barn Swallow Nest Building
- Grab a buddy, both male and female breeding pairs of swallows help build the nest.
- Fly up close to examine many different locations before choosing your perfect building spot. Check places like the beams of barns and under bridges that provide shelter and protection from predators.
- Collect some mud using your bill and mix in some grass.
- Start nest construction by building the base first and then build up the walls, sitting in the nest periodically to help shape it to your body.
- Line the inside of the nest first with grass and then feathers.
- Use some time saving tips like … borrowing building material from your neighbours or go for that vintage look by reusing an old nest, just remember to freshen up the place by cleaning out old feathers and adding some new mud.
What’s Threatening the Barn Swallow?
Since the early 1980s many North American birds that only hunt insects while flying (obligate aerial insectivores), like the barn swallow, have had major declines in their populations. In Canada, barn swallows are listed as threatened, which means if we don’t take action we could be at risk of losing these incredible birds in the wild. Here’s a breakdown of some of the major threats that are making it tough for barn swallows to survive.
Barn swallows have adapted to living in areas where there are man-made structures like barns in which to build their nests. Barns used to be all over the countryside on small family farms, but today this type of agriculture has mostly disappeared. Large-scale agriculture has replaced most small farms. As these older barns with nice beams for nest building get knocked down or become too rundown, barn swallows lose their homes. Development of wild spaces to make things like houses and roads is also leading to grassland habitat loss, making it harder for barn swallows to find the open spaces they need to hunt insects.
Lots of animals use the weather to tell them what time of year it is and what’s on their ‘to do’ list. It’s a perfect alarm clock, reminding them when they need to do things like migrate, breed or hibernate. However, this timed balance within an ecosystem runs into trouble when large-scale weather patterns that have been the same for years start to change.
Throughout the world we are seeing increased temperatures, changes to rainfall and more extreme weather events. When weather patterns become different than they were in the past it has a big effect on the timing of the life stages of all kinds of species in the ecosystem.
For birds that feed on insects, like the barn swallow, climate change means it is harder for them to find food at key times in their lifecycle. Barn swallows need to have lots of insects around to feed their newly hatched babies. Climate change is causing many species of birds, including barn swallows, to arrive several days earlier in the spring to breed. If insects do not emerge the same number of days early, this timing change (phenology) can make it difficult for adult barn swallows to find enough food when their young are hatching.
Pesticides are used in agriculture to help keep crops healthy by protecting them from local insects and fungus. Unfortunately, this practice often means killing other insects in the area. When more pesticides are used there are fewer insects left and an overall decline in the diversity of insect species. Barn swallows feed on insects; as their food source disappears, so too do the bug-eating birds. Pesticides can also have an affect on the health of the barn swallow, sometimes making them sick.
How You Can Help
Spot Some Birds
Help Bird Studies Canada keep track of the barn swallow by joining their Project Nest Watch program. Become a citizen scientist and help protect barn swallows in your area. Find our more at Birds Canada.
Start a Bring Back the Wild Campaign
Team up with Earth Rangers and the Nature Conservancy of Canada to help barn swallows. By starting a Bring Back the Wild campaign for the barn swallow you can raise awareness about this incredible songbird and fundraise for their protection. Here’s how your fundraising campaign will help barn swallows:
• Support nesting habitat restoration through the rehabilitation of five run down nesting structures (barns) at Covey Hill and Île de Grâce, and by purchasing and restoring 12.4 acres of grasslands next to Covey Hill so barn swallows have more habitat for finding food
• Aid Bird Studies Canada research investigating the use of artificial nest structures as additional nesting habitat for this threatened bird species
• Promote educational outreach through classroom education and citizen science
Find out more about barn swallows and help protect them!
Generously Supported By
A Conservation Project With
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