Fun with Swallows!

Swallows are endearing birds that nest in and near human habitation. This makes them easy to study even though they never come to bird feeders to eat. Try some of these fun activities.

Swallows seem to be always on the move! But they can hold very still when near their nests. Barn and Cliff Swallows often nest too high to safely take their pictures without a lot of help from an adult, but Tree Swallow boxes are usually set nice and low. If you want to photograph them you need:

  • Digital camera and memory OR regular camera and film
  • A blanket or tent to hide in.

Set up your tent or blanket first, and then leave it for a while. When you come back with the camera, walk back to the tent or blanket with another person. As soon as you are hidden, the other person should walk away, so the birds think it's all clear. Then take lots of pictures! If they turn out, send us a copy to share with other Journey North participants!

Video Photography
Swallows are very speedy. Try to follow one with a video camera. If you use a digital camera, see if you can make your film go in slow motion when you play it back. But don't feel bad if your film doesn't turn out--swallows go every which way, and are very tricky to keep up with!

Photo by Stephen J. Lang for The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology
Provide Swallow Housing
Tree Swallows often nest in bluebird boxes. You can find plans for building them here:

Become a Swallow-Watcher!
Swallows have a beautiful way of flying, with long wings that snap back as they rush this way and that snapping up insects. Watch one with your eyes, or with binoculars. If you have a watch that counts seconds, see if you can figure out how many wingbeats per minute they make in flight. Can you see them snatch insects? Do they stop to eat or just keep going? Is there a nest nearby? How often do the parents come to feed the babies? What do the parents do to keep the nest clean? Keep notes in your field notebook.

Become a Swallow Identifier!
Get a bird field guide, and try to identify as many swallows as you can. First look at all the species and their range maps, and see which ones live in your area. Then whenever you see a swallow, notice what color back it has, whether it is white beneath, what color the throat and head are, and what shape the tail is. How many of these can you recognize?
  • Purple Martin (the biggest swallow in North America!)
  • Tree Swallow
  • Violet-green Swallow
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  • Bank Swallow
  • Cliff Swallow
  • Cave Swallow
  • Barn Swallow