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barn swallow

Hirundo rustica

What do they look like?

Barn swallows are small birds. They are 14.6 to 19.9 cm long and have a wingspan of 31.8 to 34.3 cm. They weigh between 17 and 20 g. Barn swallows are metallic blue-black above and pale beige below. They have light brown on their throat and forehead, and have a long, deeply-forked tail. Males and females look very similar. However, females tend to be less brightly colored and have shorter tails. (Moller, 1994a; Moller, 1994b; Terres, 1980)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    17 to 20 g
    0.60 to 0.70 oz
  • Range length
    14.6 to 19.9 cm
    5.75 to 7.83 in
  • Range wingspan
    31.8 to 34.3 cm
    12.52 to 13.50 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    0.3158 W
    AnAge

Where do they live?

Barn swallows are native in all the biogeographic regions except Australia and Antarctica. The breeding range of barn swallows includes North America, northern Europe, northcentral Asia, northern Africa, the Middle East, southern China, and Japan. They winter in South America, South Asia, Indonesia, and Micronesia. (Terres, 1980)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Barn swallows are very adaptable birds. They can nest anywhere where there are open areas for foraging, a water source, and a sheltered ledge for their nest. They seek out open habitats of all types, including farms, and are commonly found in barns or other outbuildings. They also build nests under bridges, the eaves of old houses, and boat docks, as well as in rock caves and even on slow-moving trains.

While migrating, barn swallows tend to fly over open habitats, often near water or along mountain ridges. Barn swallows generally nest below 3000 m elevation. (McWilliams, 2000; Terres, 1980)

  • Range elevation
    3000 (high) m
    9842.52 (high) ft

How do they reproduce?

Barn swallows are socially monogamous (one male mates and raises chicks with one female). However, barn swallows often copulate with other swallows that are not their mate. Therefore, they are probably actually polygamous. Barn swallows form breeding pairs each spring after they arrive on the breeding grounds. They form new pairs each spring, though the same two birds may nest together for several years.

Male barn swallows try to attract females by displaying their tails and singing. Female barn swallows seem to prefer males with long tails that are equal lengths on each side. Long tails and symmetry may be good signals of a male's health and fitness as a mate.

Adults that don't have a mate sometimes join breeding pairs, and help them to build a nest, defend the nest, incubate the eggs and brood the chicks. These "helpers" are usually male. They may mate with the female of the nest. (Bolzern, et al., 1997; Brown and Brown, 1999; De Lope and Moller, 1993; Moller, 1993; Moller, 1994a; Moller, 1994b)

Barn swallows usually breed between May and August. They usually raise two broods of chicks each summer. The male and female work together to build a nest. The nest is built of a mud shell, and is lined with grass and feathers. The female lays 3 to 7 eggs (average 5). Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch in 13 to 15 days. The chicks are naked and helpless when they hatch. Both parents feed and protect the chicks, as well as removing their fecal sacs from the nest to keep it clean. The nestlings stay in the nest for about 20 days. When they are handled by humans they tend to leave the nest at least a day too early. The parents continue to care for the chicks for up to a week after they leave the nest. They feed them and lead them back to the nest at night to sleep. By two weeks after they have fledged from the nest, the chicks have left the area. They often travel quite far, visiting other barn swallow colonies. Young barn swallows are able to breed in spring after they hatch. Young barn swallows generally do not lay as many eggs as older birds. (Brown and Brown, 1999; McWilliams, 2000; Perrins, 1989; Terres, 1980)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Barn Swallows usually produce 2 clutches per season, breeding seasons occur once each year.
  • Breeding season
    Barn Swallows breed from May to August.
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 7
  • Average eggs per season
    4
    AnAge
  • Range time to hatching
    13 to 15 days
  • Average fledging age
    20.50 days
  • Range time to independence
    2 (high) weeks
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years

In North America, both barn swallow parents incubate the eggs and feed the nestlings. However, females provide more parental care than males. During the nestling period, barn swallow parents may feed their chicks up to 400 times per day. Barn swallows feed their chicks a compressed pellet of insects that they carry in their throat. (Perrins, 1989; Terres, 1980)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents

How long do they live?

Not much is known about the lifespan of these birds. The oldest wild barn swallow in North America lived 8 years, but this is considered to be unusual. Most barn swallows probably only live about 4 years. (Moller, 1994a; Moller, 1994b; Perrins, 1989; Terres, 1980)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    8 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    4 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    106 months
    Bird Banding Laboratory

How do they behave?

Barn swallows are active during the day and are migratory. They nest in colonies, but defend a small territory around their nest. They are often seen in large groups sitting on telephone wires or other elevated structures. Barn swallows have individual songs and they often sing as a chorus. (Hebblethwaite and Shields, 1990; Moller, 1991)

  • Range territory size
    4 to 8 m^2

Home Range

A study in West Virginia found that barn swallows foraged within 1.2 km of their nests. In Europe, barn swallows foraged within 500 m of their nest. (Brown and Brown, 1999)

How do they communicate with each other?

Barn swallows use vocalizations and body language (postures and movements) to communicate. Barn swallows sing, both individually and as a group. They have a wide variety of calls used in different situations, from predator alarm calls, to courtship calls, and calls of young in nests. Nestlings give off a faint chirp while begging for food. Barn swallows also make clicking noises, which they create by snapping their jaws together. (Brown and Brown, 1999)

What do they eat?

Barn swallows are insectivores. Flies, grasshoppers, crickets, dragonflies, beetles, moths and other flying insects make up 99 % of their diet. They catch most of their prey while in flight, and are able to feed their young at the nest while flying.

Barn swallows forage opportunistically. They have been observed following tractors and plows, catching the insects that are disturbed by the machinery. They drink water by skimming the surface of a body of water while flying. (Brown and Brown, 1999; Perrins, 1989; Terres, 1980)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

American kestrels and other hawks, such as sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper's hawks, eastern screech owls, gulls, common grackles, boat-tailed grackles, rats, squirrels, weasels, raccoons, bobcats, domestic cats, snakes, bullfrogs, fish and fire ants are predators of barn swallows. Barn swallows usually give alarm calls when predators come near. Most predators of barn swallows attack the nestlings, but hawks, falcons, and owls tend to hunt adults.

Barn swallows mainly escape predators by being swift and agile in flight and by building their nests in places that are difficult for predators to reach. (Barker, et al., 1994; Brown and Brown, 1999)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Barn swallows eat an enormous amount of insects and are very important in the control of their populations. Barn swallows are also a useful food source for many predators.

Cowbirds occasionally lay their eggs in barn swallow nests. If the barn swallows incubate the eggs and raise the cowbird chick, they are helping the cowbird population.

Barn swallows sometimes live in a symbiotic relationship with ospreys. The barn swallows nest inside or below an osprey nest, which is very big. By nesting near ospreys, the barn swallows are protected from predators, which are driven away by the ospreys. The ospreys benefit because the barn swallows give alarm calls when predators are nearby, alerting the ospreys. (Barker, et al., 1994; Brown and Brown, 1999; Wolfe, 1994)

Species (or larger taxonomic groups) that are mutualists with this species

Do they cause problems?

Some humans feel that barn swallow nests are a nuisance, and are ugly when they are attached to buildings and other man-made structures. Large colonies in urban areas can also create heath risks for humans. Finally, the disease called salmonella can be transmitted through the feces of barn swallows. This poses a threat to animals that live near barn swallow colonies. (Brown and Brown, 1999; Perrins, 1989)

How do they interact with us?

Barn swallows helps farmers get rid of insect pests that would affect them, their livestock, and their crops. They are a welcome insect predator on most farms. (Brown and Brown, 1999; Moore, 2001; Perrins, 1989)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • controls pest population

Are they endangered?

In the past, barn swallows have benefited from human changes to natural landscapes. As humans destroyed vast areas of forest to convert to farmland, they created large areas of new habitat for swallows. Now, as farming is becoming more modernized, barn swallows may be becoming less abundant. Barns and hay lofts are now becoming enclosed, resulting in fewer places for barn swallows to build their nests. However, barn swallows continue to be widespread and common throughout their range. There are about 190,000,000 barn swallows in the world. (Moore, 2001)

Contributors

Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.

Kari Kirschbaum (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Chava Roth (author), Western Maryland College, Randall L. Morrison (editor), Western Maryland College.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

causes or carries domestic animal disease

either directly causes, or indirectly transmits, a disease to a domestic animal

chaparral

mid-altitude coastal areas with mild, rainy winters and long, dry summers. Dominant plant types are dense, evergreen shrubs.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

choruses

to jointly display, usually with sounds, at the same time as two or more other individuals of the same or different species

colonial

used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.

cooperative breeder

helpers provide assistance in raising young that are not their own

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
endothermic

animals that generate their own body heat through metabolic processes.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

holarctic

World Map

Found in northern North America and northern Europe or Asia.

insectivore

An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oriental

found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

polygynandrous

the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

polymorphic

"many forms." A species is polymorphic if its individuals can be divided into two or more easily recognized groups, based on structure, color, or other similar characteristics. The term only applies when the distinct groups can be found in the same area; graded or clinal variation throughout the range of a species (e.g. a north-to-south decrease in size) is not polymorphism. Polymorphic characteristics may be inherited because the differences have a genetic basis, or they may be the result of environmental influences. We do not consider sexual differences (i.e. sexual dimorphism), seasonal changes (e.g. change in fur color), or age-related changes to be polymorphic. Polymorphism in a local population can be an adaptation to prevent density-dependent predation, where predators preferentially prey on the most common morph.

riparian

Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland
savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland
urban

living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Barker, E., P. Ewins, J. Miller. 1994. Birds breeding in or beneath Osprey nests. Wilson Bulletin, 106: 743-750.

Beecher, M., M. Medvin, P. Stoddard. 1993. Signals for parent-offspring recognition: a comparative analysis of the begging calls of Cliff Swallows and Barn Swallows. Animal Behavior, 45: 841-850.

Bolzern, A., A. Moller, N. Saino. 1997. Immunocompetence, ornamentation, and viability of male Barn Swallows. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 94: 54-552.

Brown, C., B. Brown. 1999. Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica). Pp. 1-32 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 452. Philadelphia, PA: The Birds of North America.

De Lope, F., A. Moller. 1993. Female reproductive effort depends on the degree of ornamentation. Evolution, 47: 1152-1161.

Hebblethwaite, M., W. Shields. 1990. Social influences on Barn Swallow foraging in the Adirondacks: a test of competing hypotheses. Animal Behavior, 39: 97-104.

McWilliams, G. 2000. The Birds of Pennsylvania. New York: Cornell University Press.

Moller, A. 1994. Male ornament size as a reliable cue to enhanced offspring viability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 91: 6929-6932.

Moller, A. 1994. Patterns of fluctuating asymmetry and selection against asymmetry. Evolution, 48: 658-671.

Moller, A. 1993. Sexual selection in the Barn Swallow *Hirundo rustica*: female tail ornaments. Evolution, 47: 417-432.

Moller, A. 1991. The preening activity of swallows, *Hirundo rustica*, in relation to experementally manipulated loads of haematophagous mites. Animal Behavior, 42: 251-260.

Moore, P. 2001. Dairy declines hard to swallow. Nature, 411: 904-905.

Perrins, C. 1989. Encyclopedia of Birds. England: Equinox Ltd..

Terres, J. 1980. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Wolfe, D. 1994. Brown-headed Cowbirds fledged from Barn Swallow and American Robin nests. Wilson Bulletin, 106: 764-767.

 
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Roth, C. 2002. "Hirundo rustica" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 18, 2014 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Hirundo_rustica/

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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