Monday, August 31, 2015

Barn Swallows, Texas Hill Country summer residents

Our measure of time runs to autumn's gold leaves in the cedar elms, winter's first fire in the fireplace, spring daffodils blooming like shining faces over dead-brown beds. 

We know summer is coming when the barn swallows arrive. Denny and I are lucky to live in a neighborhood of high-ceilinged porches, perfect territory for barn swallow nests.

"Our" 2014 male swallow, keeping watch over the female and babies.
Last year's swallows reared two families in their nest on our porch. The pair seemed like new parents, unsure of the process, and we weren't sure they'd manage.  But both clutches fledged.

"Mama feed me!" (7/9/2014)
A trio of fledgling swallows sits on the edge of their corner nest, one day before first flight. (8/26/14)

The swallows start showing up in late spring to early summer.  Pairs scope out nest sites, twitter-warbling as they fly into porches to check potential homes.  According to All About Birds, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website"Both male and female build the nest cup using mud. They collect mud in their bills and often mix it with grass stems to make pellets. They first construct a small shelf to sit on, then build up the nest’s sides. If built against a wall or other vertical surface the result is a semicircular, half-cup shape."

Some pairs return to the same porch every year, although most homeowners take down the nests after the swallows have left for the winter. I hated taking down last year's nest. Just look at the weaving of mud and grass and think how many trips they flew to the pond to dip mud from the edge. But we were planning to paint the porch...and I'd read that nests may become infested with mites, bad for new babies.

In 2015, a pair of swallows built a nest next to the 2014 nest site. The pair had a single clutch of two, pictured here (7/17/15) shortly before they fledged. 

The nests look different, in part due to location.  The 2014 nest was in a corner so it was a quarter round, 2015's nest was flat against the wall so it was a semi-circle.  

I think the color was different year to year because weather dictated a change in material. We had rain in 2015 and the banks of the pond where the birds got mud in 2014 were underwater.  I wondered how the birds would manage until I passed a new home site where groups of swallows were dipping for mud. The 2015 nest also seems to incorporate more grass, maybe the mud at the construction site needed more reinforcement?

Swallow droppings make a mess on the porch--the young know not to soil the nest, hanging their back ends over the side to do their business. But washing the floor is a small price for the entertainment of watching the birds. 

As a bonus, swallows are flying insect-eaters and keep the porch clear of mosquitoes.

This year's parents had only the one clutch but the juveniles hang out with other young swallows, resting in porch shade on hot afternoons, sometimes 10 birds together, twittering.  

We're hoping they survive the arduous migration to wintering grounds in Central And South America, and come back to us next year.
Hope you get a chance too to welcome barn swallow beauty to your own yard.

Migration map from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Copyright 2009-2015 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.


  1. So interesting! I've always been intrigued by these beautiful and fast flying birds. Nice that you were able to document the whole process and get pictures of the little babies.

  2. Wonderful birds. One of my favorite summer visitors. (Of course, they all are!)

  3. These are all adorable shots but I have to admit, that shot of the bird "aiming" over the nest edge made me laugh out loud.

    My parents used to get swallows in their chimney until they installed screening. It turns out a chimney is a very lively space acoustically. The birds always sounded like they were right inisde the living room with us though they never came down to go out.

    Sadly we don't get barn swallows nesting on our porches now but there is a huge colony of them living under the bridge over Lady Bird Lake by Zilker Park. I love watching them swooping through the air after bugs - they are such graceful flyers. I agree- a bit of mess on the floor is a fair price to pay for their company!

  4. Wonderful pictures, Kathleen. Thanks for sharing those and the information. In Karnes City we used to have [and they're still there, with many new nests this spring and summer] lots of those lovely birds, but here in Fredericksburg we haven't seen any (so far). It's a pity because we've always liked to watch them. Btw, we've never taken down a nest.
    Have a wonderful time,

  5. For me, watching the swallow families is all about the process of parenting the young ones to prepare them to leave the nest. Swallows do a great job. These days, with child-centered parenting, many parents often don't let kids do what they can do for themselves, so the youth arrive at adulthood with few skills and strengths for dealing with the challenges of the adult world. This is a frequent theme on


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