For the Birds Radio Program: Barn Swallows

Original Air Date: Sept. 4, 1989

Aristotle’s swallow that makes a summer is the same species as our Barn Swallow

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. 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– a much better rate than the finest bug zapper can do. 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,–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 an ideal time to start swallow-watching. Find a little pond or lagoon and watch them zipping gracefully above the water. It takes time to recognize swallow plumage as they dart by at high speed, but the Barn Swallow’s tail makes identification fairly easy. 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. They fly about all day, only resting occasionally, otherwise on full bug alert, 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, being of course 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.”