Barn Swallows are Widespread across Texas
Ro Wauer, June 13, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004
Of the eight regular North American swallows, none are as widespread and commonplace as the barn swallow. It can be found in every Texas county, including all those within the Coastal Bend where it usually is abundant from spring until late fall. And although most spend their winters south of the border, a few can usually be found wintering in South Texas every year.
Sometimes known simply as "swallow," its name throughout Europe, it is one of the easiest of the swallows to identify. It is a lovely bird with a long deeply forked tail, rusty throat, often a black upper chest band, and pale orange underparts. Juvenile birds possess white underparts. Its song is long and twittering, sometimes described as "energetic chattering," usually at different pitches. Kent Rylander, in his book, Behavior of Texas Birds, states that the male barn swallow's song rate is related to the bird's health. A female selects the healthiest male by listening to his song.
Barn swallows generally return to the same nesting site throughout their lifetime, but young birds do not return to their natal area to breed. They find other sites, often those that have been deserted or new sites altogether. Courtship occurs soon after the birds return to their nest sites. Pairs sit side by side on a perch, touch bills, rub their heads together, and preen each other's feathers. Then the will take off on a long, fast, but graceful flight, the male chasing the female. This flight can be extensive and can almost touch the ground to high overhead.
Another of the barn swallow's interesting characteristics is its seemingly preference for nest sites, often on man-made structures such as barns, houses, and the like. It builds an open nest plastered onto a wall, usually under the protection of an overhang. Construction materials include numerous pellets that it obtains from nearby mud puddles and plastered with bits of grass and heavily lined with feathers. Nests are constructed in seven to fourteen days, depending upon the availability of the season and availability of nesting material.
Four to seven eggs (usually 4 or 5) take 13 to 17 days to hatch, and the babies fledge in 18 to 23 days. Nesting pairs may occur in small colonies or they can be territorial, driving competitors away. But they join flocks of other barn swallows soon after the young are on their own. And migrants can occur in flocks of hundreds, and often in mixed flocks with several other swallow species. In spring and fall, when swallows are passing through, a large flock can take several minutes to pass.
A barn swallow diet is dominated by flying insects, but they can land on the ground to capture prey, or they occasionally feed on various berries and seeds. Swallows spend much of their time flying rapidly over croplands, pastures, lawns, and other places where they are likely to find food. The results are a marvelous display of pest control.
Of the five South Texas nesting swallows - purple martin and northern rough-winged, cliff, cave, and barn swallows - the barn is best known and most common.