Wild Profile: Meet the barn swallow

A barn swallow perched on a tree branch against a green background By Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

At one time, the barn swallow stuck to building its nests in waterside cliffs and caves; in cottage country, the species would have been scattered sparsely. But development over the years has given these little birds way more places to call home: bridges beams, cottage eaves, shed interiors, and, of course, barn rafters. Now, the barn swallow appears to be one species that can live in more places than almost any other bird in the world. Today, 99 per cent of their nests are on man-made structures (they’ll even nest on moving trains and boats).

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Perched on a branch, a barn swallow is easy enough to ID, with its blue-black back, wings, and tail, and a cinnamon-coloured forehead and throat. These swallows have cone-shaped bodies—it’s as if they have broad shoulders and no neck, with long, tapered tails. But you’re more likely to spot a barn swallow in the air, since it spends most of its time flying. (From below, look for the classic forked swallow tail.) These soaring birds feed on the wing. They snatch bugs mid-air, sometimes just above the water, sometimes as far as 100 feet in the sky. They really like to fly: instead of wading into the water to bathe or grab a drink, they’ll swoop down and propel their bodies and beaks through the pond or lake.

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Barn swallows are one species that often raise more than a single brood per season. After migrating north as far as 15,000 km, mates pair off, and together build their mud-cup nests. They scoop up hundreds of blobs of the stuff, shape them into pellets, and slap them against a wall or ledge. And they do good work: a mud nest can last up to five years! Unlike some other birds, a barn swallow is fine with building its nest in close quarters and only a few metres away from its neighbours.

Once the first set of baby barn swallows have fledged in late June, the pair get to work on brood No.2. Dedicated couples might even go for a third batch of offspring. At least until August rolls around. At that point, the birds begin to gather in huge flocks, prepping to migrate south.

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