written by: Julie Borgmann, Executive Director
May is one of my favorite months of the year. Every walk outside is an adventure with something new to discover. One returning visitor excites me more than any other I see- barn swallows. They are entertaining and amazing.
By now most of the spring wildflowers have broken through the crust of leaf litter in the woods, adding splashes of color to the ground. Trees are closing in the gaps of the forest as their branches fill with new leaves. The red-winged blackbirds and bluebirds, early migrating birds, have returned and are busy building nests. The barred owl sits on her nest and calls to her mate.
I truly clap with joy when I see the barn swallow dart through my barn for the first time in May. Their dark, steely blue backs are contrasted by their rusty colored chests. These summer residents have been making their mud nests and raising their broods in the rafters for the last 4 or 5 years. I am amazed these creatures fly over 5,000 miles from their winter homes in South America every spring.
Many migrating songbirds are quite shy, you may only catch a glimpse of their colorful feathers or hear their song. Barn swallows have adapted to having people as neighbors. Their nests are usually found under bridges, eaves of buildings or other manmade structures. It takes a lot of energy to build a swallow nest. They may make 1,000 trips from a pond to the nest carrying mud pellets in their beaks. Don’t tear down old nests if you see them, swallows are recyclers and will reuse old nests.
Barn swallows dash and dine. They capture their food, insects, and eat them on the fly. Rarely seen gliding, swallows are aerial acrobats. They have pointed wings and deeply forked tails. They skim low over fields and dive over ponds, reaching speeds of 30-50 miles per hour. I can barely drink coffee and drive at that speed.
One of my least favorite arrivals in May are the biting insects; mosquitos, deer flies and horseflies. Since the swallows set up house in my barn, I rarely see any of these pests. Both the male and female swallows incubate the eggs and feed the young. I love seeing them bring a big fat horsefly to the nest and drop it into the hatchings’ mouths. During their May to August stay, they will raise two broods, averaging 4-5 eggs.
Barn swallows can live an average of 4 years. They are found across a widespread region of North America. Sadly, their numbers in the upper Midwest, like most passerines, are dwindling. Use of pesticides, destruction of habitat, collisions with windows, and cats are all threats to their survival.
I am never quite sure if the swallows who return are last year’s parents, last year’s young birds, or new swallows who are recycling the nest. I am overjoyed at their return, knowing they will entertain me with their acrobatic flight and keep the barn area pest-free for my horses. I greet their cinnamon colored faces, perched on the rafters, every time I walk into the barn. They are my favorite summer visitors.
Julie Borgmann is the Executive Director for Red-tail Land Conservancy. Her passion is connecting people to nature for conservation and wellbeing.