Vancouver Avian Research Centre

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Species: Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica


The Barn Swallow is the most widely distributed and abundant swallow in the world. It breeds throughout most of North America, Europe, and Asia and winters in Central and South America, southern Spain, Morocco, Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, India, Indochina, Malaysia, and Australia.


General: The Barn Swallow is the most widespread species of swallow in the world and a familiar inhabitant of barns and other outbuildings. A bird of open country it was originally a cave breeder but now normally uses man-made structures to breed and consequently has spread with human expansion.

Medium-sized swallow 6.75 inches long (17–20 g), with long forked tail. Adults (Definitive Basic plumage) have steely-blue upperparts, rufous underparts, and chestnut forehead. Tail is deeply forked, with white spots on inner webs. Length of outermost tail-streamers varies between sexes and ages but is always much greater than in any other North American swallow species.

Adult Male: Sexes are similar, but males have longer outer tail-streamers than females (usually 79–106 mm in males and 6884 mm in females; tend to be darker chestnut on underparts. Bolcoloured underwing grey and orange.

Adult female: Adult plumages are similar throughout year. Bolcoloured underwing grey and cream.

Juvenile: (Juvenal plumage) are similar to adults but have paler underparts and less forked tails with white band across tail

Similar Species: Cliff Swallow Petrochelidon fulva is similar in voice and nesting habits, but shape and plumage are different.

Behavior: Flies at various heights from just above ground to ≥25 m. Flight consists of bursts of straight flight longer than those of other swallows; birds frequently alter course slightly to left or right. Flight may be circular when feeding over an insect concentration, such as around cattle and birds are capable of sharper turns and dives than other swallows. Increased maneuverability is a consequence of the highly forked tail; outer tail-streamers deflect leading edge of tail, resulting in higher aerodynamic lift and allowing tighter turns. Goes to ground only to collect mud, grass, or feathers for nest, to pick up bits of gravel or (rarely) moribund insects, to sunbathe, or to seek refuge from strong winds. Sidles along a wire, tree branch, or other perching substrate using a sideways walk. When on ground, walks exclusively.

Habitat: The Barn Swallow has the distinction of being perhaps the only northern temperate breeder that commonly winters in South America and occasionally also breeds there during the boreal winter; Barn Swallows have been reported nesting in small numbers in northern Argentina.
Originally nesting primarily in caves, the Barn Swallow has almost completely converted to breeding under the eaves of buildings or inside artificial structures such as bridges and culverts. In North America, this shift in nest sites began before European settlement and was virtually complete by the mid-twentieth century; nowadays natural nestings are rarely seen and usually reported in print if they occur. As with other swallows that have shifted to nesting on human-made structures, such as the Purple Martin (Progne subis), Barn Swallows now sometimes nest in larger colonies than probably occurred in natural settings.


As a consequence of both its wide distribution and its nesting on accessible artificial structures near people, the Barn Swallow has been studied extensively throughout the world and especially in Europe. More papers have been published on this species than on any other swallow, and it is one of the most thoroughly studied birds in the world. In addition, these swallows—not the more famous egrets—have the distinction of having indirectly led to the founding of the conservation movement in the United States: the destruction of Barn Swallows for the millinery trade apparently prompted George Bird Grinnell’s 1886 editorial in Forest and Stream that led to the founding of the first Audubon Society

Conservation Status:

Provincially blue listed, COSEWIC n/a, Global G5 (1996). On balance, human activity has had strongly positive effects on this species: construction of artificial structures has provided abundant nesting sites, leading to population size that is probably several orders of magnitude greater than before European settlement of North America. Barn Swallows are popular with people, and farmers often protect (rarely persecute) the birds on their property. The species seems to have adapted well to nesting in human-altered habitats in North America and worldwide.
Capture Rates

The Barn Swallow has the longest migration of North American swallows and numbers peak in August as juveniles disperse. Capture rates (2010-2012; standardized as birds captured per 100 net hours) at Colony Farms correspondingly peak in August and are lacking from Oct through April.


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