Sunday, December 14, 2014

How Baby Barn Swallows Grow Up (includes photos)

by Adele Barger Wilson, author of Bonding with the Barn Swallows
Photos and text © 2014 Adele Wilson

Bonding with the Barn Swallows consists of 186 pages and includes 117 photos.  The book is available from Amazon at:

In eastern West Virginia, Barn Swallows return from South America around mid-April.  After recuperating from their long journey north by resting and feasting on flying insects, the swallows begin their courtship activities.

Once the female chooses a mate, her mate will show her either a previously used nest or a new nesting site.  If the female approves of the location, the pair will begin to either refurbish the old nest or, if no old nest is available, to build a nest from scratch.

Once the nest is ready, the pair of swallows begin lining it with feathers.  The feathers ensure both warmth and cushioning for the soon-to-be-laid eggs.

A female Barn Swallow generally lays three to six eggs, with the average number being five.  She begins incubating her eggs on the day before the last egg is laid and continues incubating them for about thirteen to fifteen days.

During the incubation time period, the female sits on the nest all night.  The male will guard her by perching near the nest in order to prevent her from mating with other males.

The male will take turns sitting on the eggs during the daytime so that the female can forage for flying insects.  The female will return to the nest when she has had her fill, allowing the male to leave the nest and do the same.  Just before sunset, the female will settle into the nest for the night.

The eggs hatch over a period of one to three days.  The hatchlings are tiny, pink, and featherless.  The female must continue sitting on the nest for the first few days in order to keep the hatchlings warm.  She will take only short breaks outside the nest to capture insects on the fly.  Both the female and the male feed the chicks by bringing insects to the nest.

The babies will not be large enough to show their heads above the nest for a few days.  In fact their eyes are still closed during the first week of their lives. 

As the babies grow larger, so does the job of feeding them.   Feeding the babies is an arduous task that begins just after sunrise and lasts until sunset.

Barn Swallows are very devoted parents. The papa Barn Swallow shares the duty of feeding the nestlings.  It is not unusual for the parent swallows, one at a time, to arrive at the nest with food every few minutes.

The babies are able to start flapping their wings on their ninth day of life.  From about day twelve they are able to preen themselves.  While their feathers are still growing, the babies display a rather ragged appearance.

By the time a chick is sixteen to seventeen days old, it has acquired much of its juvenile plumage.  Chicks can fledge (leave the nest) at the age of eighteen days or wait as long as twenty-three days.  Nineteen days is the average fledging age that I have observed.

In the cases of some broods, all of the chicks leave the nest on the same day, while in other cases, part of the brood will fledge on one day, with the other part waiting until the next day.  Often a fledgling will return to the nest on the night of the day that it has fledged.  It will spend the night, and then leave the nest for good the following day.

The photo on the right was taken the night before the day that all five of the chicks fledged from the nest.  I came home from work that evening to find the nest totally bare.

But later that evening, there was a great surprise.  Two of the fledglings returned to the nest and spent the night!  Early the next morning, however, the two fledglings left the nest for good.  As I was leaving for work that morning, I spotted all five of the fledglings on a fence in a nearby horse pasture, awaiting feeding by their parents.

It has been said that the parents will spend a week feeding the fledglings outside the nest, but sometimes this time period can be extended.  To the left is a photo of a juvenile, about ten days after leaving the nest.  My estimate of its age is about 29 days.

In Bonding with the Barn Swallows, I share my personal experiences with three broods of Barn Swallows on my porch through text and photos.  The book describes the wonders of seeing them guard the nest area from the utility wire, the male guarding his mate (from quite unusual positions on the porch!), marking the nest with a feather, incubating the eggs, feeding the babies, and even taking breaks to land on the porch rail to let me photograph them! 

Included is the story about how one special male Barn Swallow and I became friends.  He even communicated to me twice, once vocally and the other through his body language.  Two days after he communicated to me by body language, an event revealed what he was trying to tell me.

If you are interested in close-up perspectives of bird behavior or just want to learn more about birds, this is the book for you!

Just click on the image below to order:


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