The Barn Swallow's habit of nesting in barns makes this the most familiar swallow to Tennesseans. Originally, the Barn Swallow nested primarily in caves, but now almost exclusively chooses man-made structures. It is the most widely distributed and abundant swallow species in the world, breeding throughout the northern hemisphere and wintering in most of the southern hemisphere with the exception of Australia and Antarctica. The Barn Swallow is present in Tennessee from late March through early October.
Description: This long elegant swallow is metallic blue-black above and cinnamon below. The forehead and throat are chestnut colored, and the tail is deeply forked. Adults and juveniles are similar in appearance, though females tend to be less vibrantly colored and have shorter outer tail-streamers, and juveniles have shorter and less forked tails, and paler underparts.
Weight: 0.67 oz
Voice: The call is an excited musical twitter.
- The Barn Swallow is the only North American swallow with a long forked tail.
- Cliff Swallows have a square tail, a pale collar around the nape of the neck, a pale rump, and white forehead. They might be confused with short-tailed juvenile Barn Swallows.
Habitat: Barn Swallows are found in many habitats with open areas for foraging and structures for nesting, including agricultural areas, cities, and along highways. They need mud for nest building.
Diet: Flying insects.
Nesting and reproduction: Barn Swallows nest solitarily or in small colonies. The size of the colony depends on the size of the structure and the number of entryways. In Tennessee, egg laying begins in late April with a peak for first clutches from 10 to 15 May. The same pair may mate together for several years, and the female may have two broods a year.
Clutch Size: 3 to 6 eggs with an average of 5 eggs.
Incubation: Females do most of the incubating, which lasts for about 17 days.
Fledging: Both adults care for the young. They fledge in about 21 days and the parents will continue to feed them for another week.
Nest: Nests are usually placed on a ledge, vertical wall, or in a corner under an overhang in a barn, old building, or bridge. Both adults build the cup-shaped nest of mud pellets mixed with straw, and lined with grass and feathers. It takes less than a week to construct the nest, and nests from previous years are often refurbished and used in subsequent years.
Status in Tennessee: The Barn Swallow was originally rare in the state, but became a common breeder by the mid-1900s because of its attraction to human-made structures for nest sites. While still a common nesting species in Tennessee numbers are declining likely to due to the decrease in farmland and loss of barn nesting habitat.
Dynamic map of Barn Swallow eBird observations in Tennessee
- The Barn Swallow, not the more famous egret, indirectly led to the founding of the conservation movement in the United States! It was the killing of Barn Swallows for the millinery trade (decorations for lady's hats) that apparently prompted George Grinnell's 1886 editorial in Forest and Stream, which ultimately led to the founding of the first Audubon Society.
- Recent research has shown that tail length and degree of asymmetry in the outer tail-streamers appears to be a reliable predictor of an individual's quality. Tail length, in both males and females, tends to correlate with reproductive success, and annual survival. Females prefer to mate with males that have the longest and most symmetrical tails.
- The average lifespan of barn swallows is 4 years. Barn swallows of 8 years of age have been documented, but these are considered the exception.
Best places to see in Tennessee: Virtually anywhere in Tennessee with barns between April and September.
For more information:
University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
Brown, C. R. and M. B. Brown. 1999. Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), The Birds of North America (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Consider using the online bird checklist program at eBird to help us understand bird populations and distributions in Tennessee. Click here to see how.