For the Birds Radio Program: Barn Swallow

Original Air Date: Aug. 24, 1987

Laura talks about the swallow mentioned by Aristotle, Tennyson, and Shakespeare.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Barn Swallow)

From colonial times, one of the most popular birds in America has been the Barn Swallow. Homesick English settlers were delighted to discover that this common European bird lived here, too, and was just as trusting and eager to nest on houses, barns, and bridges. Our Barn Swallow is the exact same species as Aristotle’s one swallow that didn’t make a summer. Shakespeare wrote about it in Richard III, “True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.” Tennyson’s “Swallow, Swallow, flying, flying South,” was the same species, too, though his bird was headed for Africa, not South America.

Ancient Romans used to birdnap breeding swallows from their nests to sporting games and mark the birds with the colors of the winners. The swallows quickly returned to their cold eggs or starving babies, inadvertently letting the people back home in on who won the games. Nowadays, of course, TV, newspapers, and radio keep people up-to-date on sports, sacrificing grace and style for speed.

Barn swallows build their mud nests on rafters, eaves, or other supports. The nest is wide open at the top, unlike the Cliff Swallow’s. Cliff Swallows nest in big colonies and each pair builds a gourd-shaped nest with a little round hole for them to peek out. It was most assuredly Cliff Swallows, not Barn Swallows, that caused the ruckus in Fargo-Moorhead a couple of weeks ago, when firefighters used hoses to wash away nests. Both species of swallows pack as many bugs as they can into their throat, and bring about 400 of these meals to their broods each day, which amounts to about 8,000 insects in all per nest per day– at that rate, I’d just as soon put up with a bit of mud on my house, but some people are more fastidious about mud than they are about flies and mosquitoes.

Some Barn Swallows are the long-distance flight champions of all land birds. The ones that nest in the Yukon and Alaska migrate all the way to Argentina, 7,000 miles away. Our Northland ones don’t go quite so far, but they do pass right over the turmoil in Nicaragua–some winter in Panama, but most go on to South America.

Medieval Europeans used to believe that swallows hibernated in mud and marsh ooze, because after the breeding season was over, so many swallows roosted in marshes at night. It took the Renaissance and world exploration to discover that they were actually migrating.

This is the ideal time to start swallow-watching. Barn Swallows are gathering with other swallow species in huge flocks, and they sit right out in the open on telephone wires where you can easily study them. But you’d better hurry–a lot of them are heading south right now as I speak, and they’ll all be gone in two or three weeks. They fly by day, eating flies, beetles, wasps, bees, and dragonflies as they go. They don’t fly as quickly as swifts, but they can easily cover 600 miles a day–they were the original creators of the concept of fast food.

(Recording of a Barn Swallow)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”