The Annual Return of the Barn Swallow

by Donald Hilborn, Director Ontario Barn Preservation.

The Barn Swallow, officially known as Hirundo Rustica, arrives in Ontario each spring expecting the barn doors to be open (side note….our 130 year old barn in Oxford county receives them on April 24th (+/- 2 days)). The 1st floor of an old bank barn is the preferred nesting habitat for these birds (simulating their cave habitat prior to the existence of barns). The ambitious birds quickly proceed… reclaiming, rebuilding or making a new nest in the old barn. Using spit, mud, straw and string, they upgrade the nest, completing it just in time for the eggs. The nest is commonly attached to a side of a beam just under the mow floor. Likely it is located there to gain maximum protection from predators and weather.

A full nest… photo taken mid June in Southern Ontario by the author.

Until early August, the Swallows will torment the farm cat, “flit” the farmer and turn the farmstead’s flying insects into protein and a bit of a mess especially directly underneath the nests. Suddenly the birds leave, heading to Central or Southern America, travelling in large flocks, eating while flying, covering up to 600 miles per day. They live an average of 4 years making 7 trips across the border. 50% of the time they somehow come back to the same barn. The farmer will express concern that prized farm equipment is a bit marked with excrement but will have an excellent reason to buy the new fancy pressure washer. After a few years of enthusiastically using the new washer, the farmer typically resorts to removing any nest attachment devices (i.e. protrusions like old nails on the side of beams) within the equipment parking zone. To replace these nesting areas he/she will add new nails in non-equipment locations.

Now each summer at sundown, the farmer can sit comfortably on her/his porch watching the swallows soaring and darting gracefully thru the air, like British Spitfires, decimating the mosquito population.

Information and lower photo from Washington NatureMapping Program.

Leading image from

5 thoughts on “The Annual Return of the Barn Swallow

  1. We have an old barn on a vacant farm that barn swallows nest in. We like the swallows, but we dislike our urban neighbours who are stealing the boards off the barn. We should dismantle the barn, but don’t want to destroy the bird habitat, as we see old bank barns falling down all over the place, especially here on the urban fringe. We could remove the upper timbers, and rework the space to allow the birds to nest there, but take away the incentive for board stealers. Any suggestions on how we should do this? Could be a September project when the birds are gone. Looking for ideas, because this space is popular with the birds.

    1. I think that’s a good question to pass along, David. I wonder if others have found a way to deal with people stealing their barn wood. (Laura).

  2. Hi David:
    It is great to hear that you value the habitat for the barn swallows, but unfortunate to hear of the board thieves. Here are some ideas that come to mind, for your consideration. Could you post signage, and even better along with installing a security camera, to warn the thieves that they are being monitored? Or fasten the boards very securely, for instance with ardox nails, such that their removal is not as easy (the problem with that is if the barn is ever dismantled it creates some grief for removing the boards and de-nailing)? Another option that comes to mind is removing the lower course of the weathered boards, which are quite valuable, and utilizing the funds acquired by their sale to install new boards which the thieves will likely have no interest in.

  3. Hi , I have horses and ever year this takes place , a pair of barn swallows show up in the spring , short time after this the mosquitoes show up and start tormenting the horses . At this point I start spraying the horses with horse spray , in a two days the barn swallows are gone . This year 3 sets of barn swallows showed up , the first day after spraying two sets are gone and the second day the third set of barn swallows are gone . Hopefully they are moving on and I am not killing them . I have wrote different Veterinarian government agency’s and to see why we cannot get the drop on fly repellent brought to Canada , it is like Advantage for dogs you just put a few drops on the horses back and he or she is good for a month . I receive a letter back with the reply until the Veterinarians request the need for this product , it will not be available for Canada. In the meantime the barn swallows are paying the price. I was raised with horses and at my parents place mosquitoes was not a big problem ,we never sprayed the horses there and we had lots of barn swallows setting up home . Now my sister continued to live there long after my parents are gone and no spraying the horses and still she has barn swallows . Can we not stop this spraying and get some of this product that the Americans are able to use , which would only affect the animal you put it on and not the birds and people that are breathing in this spray .

    1. My Mother has the same problem when it comes to her war with the dandelions in her lawn. She is out there digging with forks, pointy sticks, anything that she can saw away at their tap roots. But, thre are always a fresh crop of dandelions, not just once per season. The chemical which people used to be allowed to use is now unavailable here. This year there has even been a promotion to not mow lawns during May. Mow or not, the dandelions don’t care. They grow to the length that works best, short or long. But, it drives my Mother crazy. She is probably the only 79 year old woman out there digging dandelions. There is a chemical still available in the US. But not allowed to bring/ sell it here.

      I hope your barn swallows moved on. I wish the dandelions would do the same. (Laura).

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