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10 facts about swallows you didn't know

April 20, 2024
Charlotte Bartleet-Cross

10 facts about swallows that you didn't know

April is the perfect time to spot the beloved barn swallow, which migrates from South Africa to grace us with its presence.  A true symbol that spring is here, why not take a look at our ten facts about swallows that you didn't know.

1. Long-Distance Migrants: Swallows (Hirundo rustica) are remarkable long-distance migrants, flying thousands of miles between their breeding grounds in the UK and their wintering areas in Africa. They undertake this journey twice a year and average 200 miles a day.

2. Aerial Acrobats: Swallows are known for their impressive aerial acrobatics, darting and swooping through the air to catch flying insects. Their agile flight patterns are a key part of their hunting strategy. Swallows can reach impressive speeds during flight, often flying at around 25-30 mph and capable of reaching even higher speeds when pursuing prey or avoiding predators.

3. Nest Building: Swallows build cup-shaped nests using mud and straw, which they attach to structures like buildings, bridges, and eaves. The nest is lined with grasses and feathers to soften the inside. Swallows often return to the same nesting sites year after year. Research has shown that swallows prefer to nest near areas with high human activity, which is thought to be due to some kind of protection we provide from predators!

4. Courtship Displays: During courtship, male swallows will sing enthusiastically to attract a female, and then lead them towards good nesting spots, or an old nest in their territory. Once at the nesting site, they will resume singing and quite often use a type of ‘enticement’ call to attract females. Male swallows mimic the call of a nestling, and this is thought to make females respond positively as they would when caring for nestlings.

5. Swallows Are Everywhere: The barn swallow is the most widely distributed member of the swallow family in the world. The family ‘Hirundinidae’ consists of approximately 90 species, spanning the ‘swallows’, ‘martins’ and ‘saw-wings’. They all are fantastic fliers, but not all species in this family migrate like our beloved barn swallow.

6. Cultural Symbolism: Swallows have cultural significance in many societies. In the UK, their return in spring has been celebrated as a harbinger of warmer weather and the onset of summer. This same sentiment was echoed in Ancient Greece, where they held festivals in Rhodes upon seeing the first swallow arrive. As part of the festival, children would run around to different houses pretending to be swallows, demanding to be fed treats.

7. Barn Protectors: Our resident swallow in the UK is also known as the barn swallows, which are so called as they used to reside in our barns! Newer build barns aren’t as appealing to swallows, and as numbers decline, we see them less and less. However, swallows are still fantastic for protecting cattle on farms from pests, and if you have a cattle farm nearby, you may often see swallows swooping back and forth hoovering up flies.

8. Tantalising Tail Streamers: Did you know that the highly forked tail and the ‘tail streamers’ of the swallow are due to sexual selection? Research has shown that female barn swallows prefer to mate with males with longer tails. Producing a tail longer than average is energetically costly and shows the swallow is of good quality-and likely will have good genes for their babies or be good providers!

9. Declining Numbers: Some regions in the UK have reported declines in swallow populations, potentially due to factors such as habitat loss and climate change affecting their breeding and wintering areas. In the last 10 years, populations have plummeted by over 46%, which we think are linked to catastrophic declines in insect numbers.

10. Sailors And Swallows: Swallows have a special meaning in the eyes of the maritime community from hundreds of years ago, with a sighting of a swallow giving hope that land was just within reach. Within sailor culture, a swallow tattoo symbolises that the sailor has travelled over 5,000 miles at sea, which is no mean feat! However, a swallow in the presence of a dagger would suggest that a treasured friend died during a voyage.

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