The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Barn Swallows, Our Most Widespread Texas Swallow
by Ro Wauer

Even this late in the avian breeding season, barn swallows are still about, some actually still actively nesting. While all the other swallows that we might find in our area – tree, northern rough-winged, bank, cliff, cave, and purple martins – have completed their nesting cycle and are en route to their southern wintering grounds, the barn swallow is the exception. Some may stay with us until early winter before moving south, and some can even be found at select areas even later. And some early northbound birds can be expected by mid-February.

Barn swallows are one of the easiest swallow to identify. Their most distinguishing feature is their long forked tail, a feature that none of the other swallows possess. The long tail gives them a long, streamlined appearance. Adults possess a reddish-brown throat and cinnamon or buffy underparts. The underparts of juveniles are much paler. Although both cliff and cave swallows also possess reddish-brown to blackish throats, they are square-tailed swallows that lack the long forked tail.

During this time of year, it is not uncommon to see a family of barn swallows perched together on high wires or tree snags. Occasionally several barn swallow families will gather together, and other swallows that may just be passing by may join them. But the majority of the migrating swallows, often in large flocks of one to a few species, will more often continue their flight instead of resting. These migrating swallows feed on the wing, so unlike some other songbirds, such as flycatchers that often perch en route to flycatch, they continue on and only roost at night. But they usually commence their migration soon after sunup.

The majority of the barn swallows that nest in North America spend their winter months in Mexico and southward into Central and South America. But with Global Warming, barn swallows are staying further north and are returning to their ancestral nesting sites early than normal. Like most birds, they return to the same locations where they were fledged, oftentimes to the exact same nests. Once they are settled in from their northward journeys, they touch up or rebuild their nests. This requires the use of tiny mud pellets from nearby muddy sites that are shaped just right in their mouth. The cup-shaped nests are plastered on a wall or cliff that contains an overhang that protects the nest and youngsters from the weather. The four or five eggs hatch in about seven days and the young are fledged in another two weeks. They sometimes nest in small colonies, and sometimes last year’s young serve as helpers in nest-construction and feeding the new crop of youngsters.

Barn swallow diets consist primarily of insects that they capture on the wing, although the adults will occasionally feed on various berries that they find nearby. Winter birds in more tropical settings probably take more fruit than they do on the breeding grounds in the north. But in Texas, most feeding barn swallows take flying insects low to the ground in a swift, direct, and graceful flight. They frequently are found over our lawns, fields, and roadsides. They may follow the farmer’s plow or feed among grazing cattle, taking advantage of insects that are stirred up.

Barn swallows are not only beautiful creatures but also are valuable in maintaining the pests that can impact on our enjoyment of the outdoors.

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