Photo by Walt Carnahan

Have you ever seen the silhouette of a swallow? It is unmistakable… with its sharply pointed, angled wings and forked tail. Swallows are a group of passerine birds characterized by their adaptation to aerial feeding. Swallows have adapted to hunting insects on the wing by developing a slender streamlined body, and long pointed wings, which allows great maneuverability and endurance. Swallows are often seen darting swiftly across the sky, catching insects in midair. Swallows are excellent fliers, and they use their skills to attract a mate & to defend their territory. Swallows probably spend more time on the wing than any other songbird in the world. According to the book "Peterson First Guides: Birds", written by Roger Tory Peterson, there are seventy-five types of swallows worldwide. Eight members of the seventy-five species breed in North America:

  • CLIFF SWALLOW: The gregarious Cliff Swallow is a colonial nester. Colonies in the west can number up to 3,700 nests in one spot. The gourd shaped mud nests can be found under bridges, dams, cliffs, and buildings.
  • BARN SWALLOW: The Barn Swallow is the most abundant and widely distributed swallow species in the world. The Barn Swallow is easily recognized by its long forked tail. It was originally a cave breeder, but now breeds almost exclusively on man made structures.
  • NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW: The Northern Rough-Winged Swallow has a small but long-winged stocky body. The species derives its name from the outer wing feathers, which have small hooks or points on their leading edges. If you run a finger from the base to the tip along the barbed wing edge it gives a sensation similar to that of touching a rough file.
  • CAVE SWALLOW: The Cave Swallow is a small (6 inch) long winged stocky songbird. It is a locally common swallow of Texas, Mexico and the Caribbean. True to its name, it often roosts and nests inside the entrances to caves, sharing the space with bats. Although with populations increasing you will find the Cave Swallow using non-cave breeding sites such as bridges and culverts under roads.
  • TREE SWALLOW: The Tree Swallow is a common swallow of marshes and open fields. It is an inhabitant of nest boxes. The Tree Swallow winters farther north than any other American swallow, and it returns to its nesting grounds long before other swallows come back. Its ability to eat plant foods helps it survive periods of bad weather.
  • PURPLE MARTIN: The Purple Martin is the largest American swallow. Male Purple Martins are an iridescent purple, while females are brown. The natural nesting sites of this colonial species are hollow cavities in trees, but they also utilize nesting boxes provided by humans. Purple Martins feed on flying insects, flying up to 45 mph or more when foraging.
  • BANK SWALLOW: The Bank Swallow nesting in colonies in streamside banks across much of North America. Sexes look alike. Bank Swallow colonies can range from 10 nests to nearly 2,000.
  • VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW: The Violet-Green Swallow is a beautiful swallow of open woodlands and is found only in the American West.

Some very "COOL FACTS" about Swallows

  • Quite often the male selects the nesting site, & then attracts the female using his song and flight.
  • Barn Swallows often mate in the air. Both parents build the nest, incubate the eggs and care for the young.
  • The first individual swallows to return are sometimes called "Scouts." Scouts may actually be checking out nesting areas in advance of the rest of their colony.
  • The long tail of a Barn Swallow may indicate the quality of the individual bird. Females prefer to mate with males that have the longest & most symmetrical tails.
  • A pair of Violet-Green Swallows was observed assisting a pair of Western Bluebirds in raising their young. The swallows guarded the nest and tended the bluebird nestlings, and after the bluebirds fledged, the swallows used the nest site for their own young.
  • Many baby and parent swallows learn each others voices and stay together over migration.
  • Cliff Swallow chicks only get to leave the nest once, no going back. They have to wait until the time is right.
  • An unmated male Barn Swallow may kill the nestlings of a nesting pair. His actions often succeed in breaking up the pair and afford him the opportunity to mate with the female.
  • Swallows are beneficial birds that consume large quantities of insects including mosquitos and other harmful insects, so "PEOPLE BENEFIT" from having swallows around. Different species of swallows prefer different types of insects. For example, the Purple martin typically eats dragonflies, moths, and butterflies. Barn swallows consume large flies, and when the weather is bad they eat other insects off the ground. Besides insects, the Tree swallow eats a variety of seeds and berries. Bayberries are a favorite of the tree swallow.

Amazingly, swallows come back to the same nests year after year. They usually build their nests within just a few miles of the nest their parents inhabit. Swallows repair old or weakened nests which last for many years. An average swallow lives about four years, and old nests in good condition are often taken over by new tenants.

Swallows usually stay with the same mate for life. In some species, the male swallow helps incubate and care for the hatchlings. This behavior mainly occurs when swallows are living in colonies, otherwise the female cares for the young. Both the male and the female feed the hatchlings. Older siblings of newly hatched swallows have been observed helping with feedings.

Swallows feed their nestlings by rolling insects into a compact ball and carrying them back to the nest in their throat. A typical barn swallow will bring about four hundred daily meals, consisting of about twenty insects per meal, back to its brood.

These birds are truly useful in controlling the insect population. Providing nesting boxes and adequate housing is a great way to attract swallows to your property.


All swallows and their nests are fully protected under the "Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918" as migratory insectivorous birds and as such are protected by state and federal regulations. It is illegal for any person to intentionally kill, injure, take, possess, transport, sell, or purchase them or their parts. It is illegal to intentionally destroy the nest, eggs or young of a swallow without a permit. As a result, there are certain activities affecting swallows that are subject to legal restrictions.

The Division of Migratory Birds and Habitat through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers February 15th to October 1st to be the swallow nesting season. Completed nests during this breeding season cannot be touched without a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Outside of these dates, the nests can be removed without a permit. During nesting, a permit authorizing nest removal will be issued only if it can be justified by strong, compelling reasons. For example, such justification might include a health or safety hazard posed by a nesting colony situated over a doorway/entrance, near a loading area of a warehouse or a food processing facility, or at an airport if aircraft and maintenance safety are impaired.

If eggs or young are in the nest when a permit is requested, the application will probably be denied. It is best to request the permit during the non-breeding season and well before spring nest construction begins. Past history and problems will be taken into consideration. The permit is issued for one season only. The permit will authorize the permittee or the permittee's employee(s) to use specified methods to remove the nests. The number of nests removed must be reported within 10 days after the permit expires.

For all permit requirements, contact the main office of USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services in your state. In California the address is 3419A Arden Way, Sacramento, CA 95825; phone (916) 979-2675. You will be referred to a district biologist who will assess the problem and make control recommendations. If lethal control is recommended, then a permit application must be completed and sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional office along with a fee.

Nest Removal

In areas where a permit is required, the nest removal method will be specified by the permit. In California, old nests or nests under construction may be washed down with water or knocked down with a pole. Swallows are strongly attracted to old nests or to the remnants of deteriorated nests, so all traces of mud should be removed. During nest building, nest removal will require many days because cliff swallows persistently rebuild nests for most of the breeding season. They usually return the following year and the whole process must be repeated.


Exclusion refers to any control method that denies physical access to the nest site area. Exclusion represents a relatively permanent, long-term solution to the problem. In California, a permit is not required for this method if it is done before the birds arrive, during nest building when there are no eggs or young in the nest or after the birds have left for the winter. If swallows have eggs or young in the nest, exclusion may not be used without a permit.



If you have any questions regarding the above information or if you need additional information regarding the legal status or any termination of swallows, their young or their nests please contact John & Deb Kirkpatrick at (530) 888-6912.


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