One of the most easily identifiable of the swallows and martins family, the barn swallow has a sleek and slender shape, with characteristic forked tail that can be seen in flight. Their back and cap is a very dark inky blue with a band that extends across the breast, with rusty coloured chin and forehead, contrasting beautifully with their peachy-white underbelly. Their tails are deeply forked, with thin tail ‘streamers’ on either side, dark in colour.
Females have shorter tail streamers than males, often showcasing more of a broad fork but otherwise look almost identical to the male. Juveniles have even shorter streamers, and are duller in colour.
Average Lifespan: 2-5 Years
Average Wingspan: 29-32cm
Swallows catch their food on the wing, specialising in catching insects, especially large flies. They can’t be persuaded to feed from garden feeders but keeping your garden full of flowering plants and wildlife friendly shrubs is a great way to encourage insect life into your garden and increase your chances of a visit.
Swallows build cup-shaped nests normally on beams of ledges of outbuildings and walls. Both the male and female will be involved with building, and they collect mud to create a small ledge, on which to perch and build the rest of their nest. These nests normally take 5-12 days to build if the weather is fair, and once constructed, nests can be re-used year on year with only minor fixes to crumbling walls. The bottom of the nest is lined with feathers, grass and straw. Where natural nest sites are not available, swallows will use artificial nest cups to nest in and have been found to produce more eggs as they do not need to use extra energy to build natural nests.
Clutches are normally laid between May and July, with 2 broods laid annually. Each clutch has 4-5 eggs which are incubated primarily by the female, for around 2 and a half weeks before they hatch.
Though the swallow has declined here in the UK, it is still of green status and is also of least concern globally. The intensification of agricultural practices is thought to have contributed towards the decline of the swallow, as less foraging habitat is available to them, the overall decline of insect species, and the modernisation of barn structures has removed many of their nesting spaces.
Allow a pond in your garden to get a little muddy, to provide the perfect nesting material for swallows to build nests!
Providing specialised nest cups for swallows to nest in
Plant lots of pollinator friendly plants to attract insects into your garden
The swallow is featured in ‘The princess: A medley’ by Lord Alfred Tennyson, an excerpt of which is below:
“O Swallow, Swallow, flying, flying South,
Fly to her, and fall upon her gilded caves,
And tell her, tell her, what I tell to thee.”
BirdLife International (2022) Species factsheet: Hirundo rustica. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 29/03/2022.
Györkös Teglhøj, P. (2018) Artificial nests for Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica: a conservation option for a declining passerine? Bird Study. 65(3): 385-395.
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Robinson, R.A. (2005) BirdFacts: profiles of birds occurring in Britain & Ireland. BTO, Thetford (http://www.bto.org/birdfacts, accessed on 28 March 2022)
Stanbury, A.J., Eaton, M.A., Aebischer, N.J., Balmer, D., Brown, A.F., Douse, A., Lindley, P., McCulloch, N., Noble, D.G., Win, I. (2021) The status of our bird populations: the fifth Birds of Conservation Concern in the United Kingdom, Channel Islands and Isle of Man and second IUCN Red List assessment of extinction risk for Great Britain. British Birds. 114
Turner, A. (2010). The Barn Swallow. United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Williams, E., Thomas, W., Green, W. T., Baron Tennyson, A. T. (1860). The Princess: A Medley. United Kingdom: Edward Moxon and Company, Dover Street.
Woodward, I., Aebischer, N., Burnell, D., Eaton, M., Frost, T., Hall, C., Stroud, D. & Noble, D. (2020) Population estimates of birds in Great Britain and the United Kingdom. British Birds. 113: 69–104.