Spring upon us and that always means two things for sure:
What is particularly attractive to urban farmers is swallows are voracious consumers of insects. These rather small and slender birds that are about 5 to 6 inches in length, with pointed wings and tails, eat between 800 and 1000 insects per bird per day. The barn swallow typically feeds about 25 feet off the ground, often following animals, humans or farm machinery to catch disturbed insects, but it will occasionally pick prey items from the water surface, walls and plants.
In its breeding areas large flies comprise approximately 70% of its diet. Aphids also comprise a significant component. When egg-laying, barn swallows will hunt in pairs. Multiply these numbers by a nesting pair feeding their young and you have excellent insect control without using chemicals.
Cliff and barn swallows build mud nests on the underside of roofs, decks and in barns in addition to natural structures. Some such as the violet-greens and tree swallows are secondary cavity dwellers, meaning they nest in already created holes and crevices such as hose in dead trees and snags or those made by woodpeckers, they also attracted to and take very well to nest boxes. These nest boxes are easy to build or buy and hang in your yard.
To help attract these beautiful and beneficial birds:
1. Bits of shedding animal hair are highly desirable as nesting material. You can either collect some of the hair and set it out in tufts or simply leave a few tufts behind after cleaning up after grooming chores of your horses, dogs, cats and other critters. Once the swallows return in the springtime, they will begin recycling the hair into nesting material.
2. Once the nests are built and babies are hatched, the insect consumption goes up significantly. After the babies leave the nest, they will all stay around your place for a few more weeks. The parents may make a go at a second next of babies while the first set of babies will stay in the area, waiting to migrate with its parents at seasons end.
If you want to offer boxes to encourage habitation, please consult your local Audubon chapter, birding organization, cooperative extension office, the library or the internet for advice on types and sources of nesting boxes. Poorly made and/or maintained boxes entice non-native species, such as starlings, to move in. These can out-compete swallows and other natives.
In addition to a season's worth of free, non-toxic pest control, these pretty little birds also provide entertainment through their graceful flight acrobatics as they swoop to pick up nesting material, catch insects, and swoop down to drink water or take a quick bath.