The last of the barn swallow fledglings left the nest on Wednesday, Sept. 2. This is late for barn swallows. Most years, they have grown up and joined the big flocks of birds lining utility wires getting ready to fly south. I did find one reference to a September fledging in North Dakota, in McKenzie County, in the far western part of the state.
The barn swallows were particularly welcome at our place west of Gilby, N.D. Last year, we had none, an anomaly in more than two decades that we’ve lived there. Most years, we’ve had several nesting pairs, and one year, we had a dozen. My theory is that cold weather may have cut into the insect population and discouraged nesting swallows.
Barn swallows are social birds and form loose colonies. Research suggests the birds are also place bound and return to the same area where they were raised. This bodes well for swallow numbers at our place next year. This year’s pair raised two broods, though the second brood was smaller than the first.
The pair used two different nests; the second built immediately adjacent to the first. I watched as they tried to enlarge the existing nests, but the cup got too close to the overhang of the roof, and they started over. Perhaps that miscalculation accounts for their late nesting.
In any case, the barn swallows are good tenants. They are voracious eaters of insects, which would be enough for us to welcome them. They are also entertaining to watch. Their aerial maneuvers are spectacular, with loops and glides and swoops and dives.
What’s more, they are beautiful birds. Barn swallows are deep blue or purple on the back, with brilliant white breasts. The throat and forehead are chestnut. These colors are duller on fledglings, but by the time they leave the nest, the birds are recognizably barn swallows.
The most amazing parts of these birds are the wings and tail; both are long, and the wings are swept back, the better for aerial maneuvering. The tail is deeply forked, and this probably has some effectiveness in aerobatics, too, but scientists have discovered that the real deal with the tail is as a lure to attract mates, and size does matter. Female barn swallows prefer males with longer tails.
Barn swallows are generally monogamous, though couplings outside the pair are not uncommon. Males are good providers, assisting in nest-building and in feeding and rearing young. I’ve watched both parents coax young birds out of the nest, essentially demonstrating how to become airborne.
Barn swallows are common around the globe, occurring on every continent except Antarctica. Populations show some differences in plumage. And taxonomists, whose job it is to obsess about this, haven’t agreed on whether this is a “superspecies” containing a number of closely related species or whether the world’s barn swallows are a single species that can be divided into subspecies.
Birds reared in our area spend the winter in Central and South America. This involves a lengthy trip, of course, and exposes the birds to a multitude of dangers – cold, wet weather among the most dangerous.
Barn swallows are common, and the population isn’t in danger. It likely is much larger than it was 200 years ago, when the Great Plains offered few structures that the swallows could use as nest supports. They would have been limited to areas with cliffs or eroded stream banks, but barn swallows are probably less numerous now than they were 100 years ago, when human structures were spread more widely across the plains.
The nature of these buildings has changed, too. Pioneer barns and machine sheds were generally open, which provided places to support the swallows’ mud-built nests as well as protection from wind, rain and many predators. Today’s farm buildings are vastly different, often constructed of metal and with doors that are closed most of the time. Fewer attractive nesting sites means fewer nesting birds, for barn swallows. The change in farm building materials and usage amounts to a kind of habitat destruction.
Since barn swallows have always been associated with human buildings, they’ve become the objects of folklore. My dad, the eldest son of parents who immigrated from Friesland in northwestern Europe, regarded swallows as a sign of good luck, and he actively encouraged them to nest in our dairy barn. The doors were left open in summer, a primitive kind of air conditioning, and several pairs of swallows used the space.
The largest local colony I’ve encountered was also in a dairy barn, one left over from the Bonanza farming era of the late 1800s. The barn there was round with a high vaulted ceiling. Remodeling over the years has added structure inside, in order to use the old barn for grain storage. The result was more support for nesting swallows. The day I visited in July several years ago, a mass of the birds exploded out of the barn.
Counting swallows is a fool’s errand. They move far too quickly to keep track of individuals. I’d estimate their number at more than 100, which would mean at least 50 nesting pairs – a large colony of barn swallows.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at email@example.com.