Barn swallows are amazing flyers and beneficial.
Barn swallows are blue above with a peachy colored breast and darker orange on the throat and forehead. They have a long, slender, deeply forked tail. Females are slightly duller and shorter-tailed than males. Juveniles look similar to adults, but have much shorter tails.
In late March, while walking my dogs on a mowed area near the airport, I found myself surrounded by about a half dozen barn swallows. They were swooping within a foot of the ground and so close to me I could almost have reached out and touched one.
They were probably feeding on gnats or midges since it was dusk. They may have come so close to take advantage of insects my pack and I flushed while moving through the grass. They are known to follow agricultural equipment and cattle for that reason.
Flies make up the majority of the barn swallow’s diet. Midges, mosquitoes and gnats are all flies. Barn swallows will eat any flying insect but prefer larger prey including beetles, bees, wasps, ants, butterflies and moths to midge swarms. However, larger insects are less abundant in early spring.
The value of insectivorous swallows to farmers was recognized very early. It was illegal to kill them in ancient Rome. But they were driven to near extinction by hat-makers in the 19th century. The millinery trade’s impact on barn swallows prompted early conservationist George Bird Grinnell’s famous 1886 Forest & Stream editorial decrying slaughter of the little birds. That essay led to the founding of the first Audubon Society.
Happily, the barn swallow is once again among the commonest and most widely distributed bird species in the world and is found throughout the Northern Hemisphere in summer and over most of the Southern Hemisphere in winter.
Barn swallows eat and drink on the wing. They forage in open areas including parks, ballfields, agricultural fields and beaches and over open water such as lakes, ponds and coastal waters. They range from sea level up to 10,000 feet. They are commonly seen over the grassy shoulders of the John Gorrie Bridge.
According to Allaboutbirds.com, “Barn Swallows once nested in caves throughout North America, but now build their nests almost exclusively on human-made structures. Today the only North American barn swallow population that still regularly uses caves as nest sites occurs in the Channel Islands off the California coast.”
Master birder John Spohrer said they commonly nest under bridges and docks in our area, since barns are few and far between. That means last year was not kind to these beautiful birds because high water from tropical storms Debby and Ivan washed away most of the nestlings and destroyed nests.
Swallows nest in mud cups lined with grass and feathers and will reuse existing cups after changing out the soft lining and patching them with fresh mud.
Barn swallows don't come to seed or suet feeders, but you may be able to attract them to your yard with ground-up eggshells or oyster shells placed on an open platform feeder.
Swallows have lived in close association with humans for at least 2,000 years and, for this reason, they are the subject of much folklore.
According to legend, a barn swallow consoled Christ on the cross. They represent freedom and hope. The swallow’s forked tail is said to have been struck by a lightning bolt when the swallow stole fire from the gods to bring it to humankind. Another legend is that cows will give bloody milk if the swallows in the barn die or leave.
Barn swallows also play an important role in maritime lore. English sailors had swallows tattooed on the chest or above the thumb on each hand. Each bird was said to represent 5,000 nautical miles traveled. It was also believed that, when a sailor drowned, the swallows carried his soul to heaven.