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At a glance

The barn swallow is the most widespread species of swallow in the world. It is one of the first signs of summer, arriving the UK from its wintering grounds in Africa to breed, and often returning to the same nesting site each year. After breeding, swallows gather in huge communal roosts, sometimes thousands strong, when they can be spotted swirling in the sky, or perched on telegraph wires before heading south for winter.

Key facts

Scientific name: Hirundo rustica
Status: Breeding summer visitor

Breeding birds: 860,000 territories

Conservation status: Green
Length: 17 – 19 cm
Wingspan: 32 – 35 cm
Weight: 16 – 25 g
Typical lifespan: 2 years

What do swallows look like?

Adult male swallows have black plumage with glossy blue on the upperparts and black flight feathers. The deeply forked tail is black with long streamers.

On the underparts, the breast and belly are cream and there is a dark blue collar on the throat. The flight feathers on the underwing are dark grey with cream-coloured coverts, and the undertail coverts are cream with black rectrices. There are white patches on the outer rectrices which form a white band across the tail.

On the head the forehead and chin are orange-red, the crown and nape are dark blue, and the lores and area around the eyes are black. They have short, thin black bills, black eyes and black legs and feet.

Female swallows are similar to the male but with shorter tail streamers and a less distinct blue collar on the throat.

Juvenile swallows are duller than adults with a buff-white forehead and chin, and short tail streamers.

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How do swallows breed?

Swallows breed from May to July and produce 2 or 3 broods a season. They nest under the rafters of buildings or ledges on cliff faces. Both male and female build the nest which is a shallow cup open at the top. It is made from mud and dried grass, and lined with softer materials such as feathers and plant down.

Swallows lay 4-5 white eggs with reddish-brown speckles which are incubated mainly by the female for 14-16 days. If she leaves the nest to feed the male may incubate for 15 minutes at a time, but if she dies, the nest is abandoned. Chicks are covered in long, grey down and are fed insects by both parents. After 2 weeks they appear above the edges of the nest with open bills. They fledge at 20-24 days after hatching but return to the nest at night. They are sexually mature at 1 year.

What do swallows eat?

Swallows feed and drink on the wing, catching insects including flies, grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, moths, butterflies and dragonflies. They will often follow tractors to take advantage of disturbed insects.


Where can I see swallows?

Swallows arrive in the UK in March and have departed by October. They can see across the UK in areas where there is a good supply of insects such as near open water, farmland. Before migrating they can often be found near reed beds.

What do swallows sound like?

Frank Roos/xeno-canto

Did you know?

Swallows appear to have used man-made structures for their nests for thousands of years. In Virgil’s Georgics written in 29 BC reference is made to the swallow: Ante garrula quam tignis nidum suspendat hirundo (Before the twittering swallow hangs its nest from the rafters).

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2 Responses

  1. are swallows described above common in new zealand.
    i have not noticed them before and im 65.
    only notice this pair when they tried to take my head off.
    they come at your like a f18 and only deviate 3 mtrs out.
    found they were building a nest on a light fitting under a small
    awning over our front door.

  2. Good morning,
    I have a question or two if that’s o.k.
    Where I live in north Cumbria we had 14 swallows arrive during the 3rd week in April, 2021. Until 3rd week in May the bitter cold winds from the north (Greenland, I think) were prevalent and our 14 swallows were reduced to 10. Would this have occurred because the swallows had little to eat in the way of air-born insects or because some had moved on?
    Do swallows pair up before they get here? One, unfortunately flew into a window and died. Will its mate stay on until the end of September or will it leave? If the male dies will the female endeavour to nurture any chicks or desert?
    I have been an avid birdwatcher from boyhood and I live in wonder of what these beautiful little birds achieve year on year,
    Thanks and best wishes,

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