Barn Swallow Habits Nesting, Feeding, Migration

The Barn Swallow with its distinctive long forked tail, makes it one of the easier North American swallows to identify.

When flying, the feathers are swept back and form a single long point behind the bird.

One sure sign of summer is when you see them flying back and forth to an open barn or outbuilding where they build their nest. This bird spends more time in the air then almost any other land bird.

A friend to farmers, these swallows are on an endless search for insects throughout the season.

Barn-Swallow sitting on roof of house

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow Call

What Barn Swallows Look Like

Barn Swallows measure 5 1/2 to 7 inches in length with pointed wings and a deeply forked tail.

The bill is very short. Dark blue-black above with a dark rusty throat. The rest of the underparts are a buffy or pale rusty.

Females are similar with shorter outer tail feathers than the male. The young are similar to the adults, but have paler underparts and shorter outer tail feathers.

Mating Habits

These birds are generally monogamous, males mating with a single female. Although rare, males sometimes will pair with 2 females.

Pairs are usually formed once they've reached the breeding grounds.

Paired males will aggressively defend the small area around the nest and guard his mate from other males that might attempt to copulate with her.

Barn Swallow Nesting Habits

Barn Swallow Nest

What a Barn Swallow Nest Looks Like

Nesting occurs primarily in June and July. Both the male and female build the nest, usually working in the morning and making up to 1,000 trips to collect mud before nest completion.

This is about the only time you can see them on the ground collecting mud and feathers for the nest.

Although these birds probably nested in caves and on cliffs, they now almost exclusively use man-made structures such as barns and the overhangs of decks and patios.

You can offer an artificial nest to try to get them nesting where you want.

The nest is a cup of mud pellets lined with grass and feathers, built under eaves of buildings, resting on a beam or some projection in barns, under bridges, in culverts, or occasionally in a niche on a cliff.

Barn Swallow Preening Feathers

The female lays 3 to 8 white eggs that are spotted with reddish brown about 1 - 3 days after nest completion.

The eggs are incubated for 14 to 16 days and the young will leavethe nest in 18 to 23 days.

Like other Swallows such as Purple Martins, unmated male Barn Swallows will sometimes kill the young of other pairs in order to mate with the female.

Two broods a season may be attempted. Barn Swallows return to the same nest season to season and will make repairs to the nest if needed.

Removing nest during the winter will not keep them from returning.

A barrier may have to be built in order for them to change sites. Once they move on, the barrier can be removed.

If you do not want them nesting (they can be messy) on your home, you must not let them build their nest. Using some type of Swallow Deterent

You can remove their nest until eggs are laid. Once eggs are laid, the law protects them making it illegal to interfere during the nesting cycle.

The image below shows what a Barn Swallows nest looks like with eggs inside.

Barn Swallow Nest

Barn Swallow Nest and Eggs

The adult birds continue feeding the fledglings for about 1 week after leaving the nest.

When the young first leave the nest they perch in the landing tree. For a short time the adults will bring food to the the young while perched in trees.

Later the adults will pass food to them in flight showing them how to catch flying insects.

Feeding Habits

Barn Swallows eat and feed their young flying insects caught on the wing.

During the breeding season these birds will feed in pairs and fly at a low altitude, generally over fields and water. Sometimes mistaken for Purple Martins.

You are most likely to see Barn Swallows following you as you mow large field areas. Swooping close to the ground and catching insects the lawnmower or tractor causes to fly up.

Purple Martins on the other hand, do not feed that close to the ground. Instead, you'll find Martins feeding very high in the air.

Over water is where you may see both Purple Martins and Barn Swallows together. Just skimming the surface of the water to bathe or drink.

During the non-breeding season they will feed in small, loosely formed flocks.

Birdwatchers can offer egg shells or oyster shells that the Swallows need for calcium and grit which aids in digestion.

One of the best reasons to have these birds around is to help get rid of pest insects that bother us when we're enjoying the outdoors.


The habitat of Barn Swallows is mostly open country and marshes, especially near barns, outbuildings, bridges, and culverts.

Since humans are developing more housing in what was once farm land, these birds can be found more and more nesting on houses around people.

Barn Swallow Migration

Spring migration may start as early as February for Texas and California but for the most part, April and May will be the peak time period.

By August, Barn Swallows will begin forming migratory roost and heading southward.

By September you'll be hard pressed to see any around. Both the adults and young will migrate at the same time.

Primary wintering grounds for North American birds is Central and South America.

See Also:

Watch Barn Swallow Videos

Other Types of Swallows in the World

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