Swallow: Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

Molly McGinnis

November, 2003 issue of Signals from TARSUS

The Walkers' Swallow burgee (flag) sails the world – if you count the "made-up" stories Peter Duck & Missee Lee. The Swallows' crew has a big part in every book (even when they're not there – where does the final big excitement in The Picts and the Martyrs come from?). But where is the living bird? The nearest I can find to a living swallow is when Roger thinks "like swallows sitting on a telephone wire". The only way I can explain it is that maybe when Ransome started writing the books he wasn't nearly as bird-conscious as he became later.

The picture Ransome designed for the Swallows' burgee is clearly a Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica). You can tell by the long "coat-tails" that are so clearly shown in the flag drawings. On the real bird, the "tails" are very thin and not as easy to see as you might think. The Barn Swallow is the most abundant swallow in the world. In Britain and Europe it is very white on its underside, just like the Swallows' swallow. In North America, Barn Swallows' bellies are bright orangey-pink (adult males) or pinkish cream (in females), but otherwise they're just the same as the Barn Swallow you would see in Britain or Europe. When Barn and Cliff Swallows fly you'll see the blackish back flashing brilliant steely blue-black as the bird swoops and tilts in the sun. The dark red around the cheeks and throat is hard to see even when the bird sits and lets you stare at it through binoculars.

In North America you have to look closely to tell a Barn Swallow from the Cliff Swallow. A Cliff Swallow doesn't have the long "coat-tails" — just a shallow fork or dent in the tail. They are a little chunkier and a little paler beneath, and they often flock with and sit with Barn Swallows. There's no worry about telling Barnies and Cliffies apart in Europe as a sighting of a Cliff Swallow would be very unusual, a "vagrant" bird perhaps blown far east of its range by a spring storm.

Swallows come to North America, the British Isles and Europe only in summer. They nest, raise their young on our summer insects, and return to South Africa (in the case of the Eurasian Barn Swallow) or South America (American Barn Swallows). Even though the colors of the Eurasian and American Barn Swallows are so different, they are considered the same species.

One of the swallow's favorite foods is mosquitoes and an average swallow can wipe out 6000 mosquitoes a day. The other reason you see big flocks of swallows near water is that they gather mud pellets for their nests from the edges of puddles, ponds, and riverbanks. If you look under bridges or freeway overpasses that are near water you may see the great clusters of lumpy round nests. Swallows aren't bothered by having people around but people may be bothered by large numbers of Barn and Cliff Swallows messily making their mud nests under the eaves of their houses and barns! Luckily, North American swallows are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and fussy housekeepers can't legally destroy their nests.

There are other swallows in Britain and Europe, but they must be seen only infrequently. I searched the Web on species names and turned up descriptions and pictures only for the Barn Swallow and Sand Martin (Bank Swallow in the US: Riparia riparia). I hope that Dick someday came to California and drifted down a river where he could see all six of the starred (*) swallow species below in a few summer hours! Here are the British and American names of some species:

UK = United Kingdom NA= North America * Swallows you could see along a California river

*Swallow (UK); Barn Swallow (NA) Hirundo rustica
*Cliff Swallow (NA; very rarely seen in UK) Hirundo pyrrhonota (now Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)
*Sand Martin (UK); Bank Swallow (NA) Riparia riparia
*Tree Swallow (both) Tachycineta bicolor
*Violet-green Swallow (Western NA only) Tachycineta thalassina
*Northern Rough-winged Swallow (NA only) Stelgidopteryx serripennis
Crag Martin (UK & Europe only) Ptyonoprogne rupestris
Red-rumped Swallow (UK & Europe only) Hirundo daurica
House Martin (UK & Europe only) Delichon urbica
Purple Martin (Progne subis) (NA): different genera but House & Purple Martin behave much alike
Cave Swallow (Petrochelidon fulva) occurs in South Texas and in a few spots in the southwest
Bahama Swallow (Tachycineta cyaneoviridis) (NA) is occasional in the far south of Florida.

All other American swallows are widespread over the United States, except the Purple Martin, which is more abundant in the Midwest and East.

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