Common names: Barn swallow (English); Europese swael (Afrikaans); Ucelizapholo, Udlihashe (Xhosa); iNkojane (Zulu); Lekabelane (South Sotho); Nyeganyenga (Shona); Inkonjane (Swazi); Nyengha (Tsonga); Peolwane (Northern Sotho), Phetla (Setswana).

Barn swallows are the most abundant and widely distributed species of swallows in the world and an estimated 22-44 million birds from west Europe and 44-88 million from east Europe and Asia enter Africa annually on southwards migration.

Description/How to recognise a… 

Barn swallows are relatively small birds weighing approximately 20g at a length of about 20cm (Hockey et al. 2005), they have a chestnut rufous throat and forehead, a blue-black breast band, glossy steel-blue upperparts and a deeply forked tail. They have a white belly and flank which clearly shows on the tail when spread.

Juveniles have a buffy forehead and a paler chin and throat, and much duller and browner upperparts (Chittenden et al. 2016). Males and females are similar although the males have slightly longer outer tail streamers, only observed during breeding season (Chittenden et al. 2016).

Getting around

The birds are paleartic-br summer migrants (Hockey et al. 2005) who spend their winter in parts of Central and South America, and have been found as far as Argentina. Because they are aerial insectivorous, they spend most of their time in flight, and can spend all day going up and down feeding and also feeding their young.


Barn swallows render a loud witt-witt contact call given all year round (Keith et al. 1992) and they use vocalisations and body language (postures and movements) to communicate. They have a wide variety of calls used for different purposes, from predator alarm calls, to courtship calls and calls of young in nests. Nestlings give off a faint chirp while begging for food. Barn swallows also make clicking noises, which they create by snapping their jaws together (Brown & Brown 1999).


Barn swallows have a wide distribution range and are reported from Africa, Europe, America and Asia and breeds in the Paleartic and Nearctic (Keth et al. 1992). They have breeding ground across North America and Eurasia. In non-breeding season, the population moves to South Africa, America and southern Asia. (SABAP 1; Hockey et al. 2005; Harrison et al. 1997).


In southern Africa, although not a strict habitat specialist, the species is mostly reported from arid, semi-arid and high altitude areas such as Drakensberg and Lesotho (Earlé 1997). In South Africa, Barn swallows are generally more common in the moist eastern region, preferring Miombo woodlands, open grass land pastures, cultivated fields and open water (SABAP 1; Hockey et al. 2005; Harrison et al. 1997).


Although Barn swallows can feed in different heights they typically feed 7–8 m above shallow water or the ground with quick and agile flight (Keith et al. 1992), often following animals, humans or farm machinery (Dean & MacDonald 1981) to catch disturbed insects. They occasionally pick prey items from the water surface, walls and plants (Brooke 1956).

In the breeding areas, large flies make up around 70% of the diet, with aphids also a significant component. However, in Europe, the Barn swallow consumes fewer aphids than the House or Sand martins. On the wintering grounds, hymenoptera, especially flying ants, are important food items (Chittenden et al. 2016).


The female Barn swallow first breed at the age of one and the male can remain unpaired until two years old (NatureServe 2010). Generally the clutch size ranges from 2 to 7 eggs, although it is commonly 4 or 5 eggs in the nest. The female incubates more than their male counterparts and the incubation lasts approximately 13 to 14 days (Smith & Montgomerie 1991). The female chooses the nest site and the male partner, with the later influenced by feather length and colour. Both the males and the females defend the nest but the male is particularly territorial and aggressive.

Family life: Barn swallows are socially monogamous but extra-pair copulation are common, making this species genetically polygamous (MØller 1994). The breeding pairs form each spring after arrival on the breeding grounds, with the pairs that nested together successfully most likely to remain mated for several years (Shield 1984). Barn swallows are highly gregarious and are found in loose flock during the day but at night they roost in groups of a few hundred to 2-3 million birds (Van den Brink & Van der Have 1993).


Friends and foes 

Barn swallows are preyed on by a number of predators including American kestrels, rats, snakes, domesticated cats etc. And many are trapped and eaten on migration through Africa, especially in east, west and central Africa (Oatley 2000) .They usually give alarm calls when predators come near. Most predators attack the young ones, while other birds such as hawks, falcons and owls tend to feed on the adult Barn swallows (Barker et al. 1994; Brown & Brown 1999). 

Smart strategies 

To escape predators, Barn swallows are swift and agile in flight, and they also build their nets in places that are difficult for the predators to reach (Barker et al. 1994; Brown & Brown 1999). 

Poorer world without me 

Barn swallows are quite effective in reducing insect pest populations, and also serves as indicator or trigger organisms. A decline in their relatively abundant numbers may precede other more obvious effects of extreme weather conditions such as unseasonally cold weather, rain and hail storms (Broekhuysen 1953; Martin 1995; Vincent 1969; Moore 2001; Perrins 1989).

Barn swallows are also useful food source for many predators like raptors (Bijlsma et al. 1994) and Marabou storks (Bennun 1992; Barker et al. 1994; Brown & Brown 1999; Wolfe 1994). As one of the earlier migrants, this conspicuous species is also seen as an early sign of summer’s approach.

People and I 

Because Barn Swallows feed on and reduce populations of flying insects, they are tolerated by humans and are often reported to be nesting on human structures. Many cattle farmers believed that barn swallows spread Salmonella infections, however a study in Sweden showed no evidence of the birds being carriers of the bacteria (Haemig et al. 2008). 

Conservation status and what the future holds 

The Barn swallows are common and abundant, non-breeding paleartic migrants that have an enormous range, with an estimated global Extent Of Occurrence (EOO) of 51,700,000 km2 (20,000,000 sq mi) and a population of 190 million individuals. The species is enlisted as least concern on the 2007 IUCN Red List (BirdLife International 2012) and although not globally threated, the populations are decreasing in many parts of Europe (Engen et al. 2001; Hagemeijer & Blair 1997). 


There are a number of intraspecific taxonomic challenges within the genus, with the red-chested swallow, a resident of West Africa, the Congo basin, and Ethiopia, formerly treated as a subspecies of the barn swallow (Barlow et al. 1997). The red-chested swallow is slightly smaller than its migratory relative and has a narrower blue breast-band, and adults have shorter tail streamers (Barlow et al. 1997) and when flying it looks paler underneath than barn swallows (Barlow et al. 1997).


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Hirundinidae
Genus: Hirundo
Species: Hirundo rustica (Linnaeus, 1758)

References and further reading

  • Barker, E., Ewins, P. & Miller, J.  1994. Birds breeding in or beneath osprey nest. Wilson Bulletin 106: 743-750.
  • Barlow, C., Wacher, T. & Disley, T. 1997. A Field Guide to birds of The Gambia and Senegal. Robertsbridge: Pica Press.
  • Bennun, L. 1992. Marabous snaffle swallows. Kenya Birds 1: 45-46.
  • Bijlsma, R.G., Van den Brink, B., De Roder, F. & Terpstra, K. 1994. Raptor predation on roosting swallows. Gabar 9: 13-16.
  • BirdLife International. 2012. “Hirundo rustica“. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Accessed 20 August 2018.
  • Broekhuysen, G.J. 1953. A post mortem of the Hirundinidae which perished at Somerest West in April 1953. Ostrich 24: 148-152.
  • Brooke, R.K. 1956. Food of the European swallow (Hirundo rustica). Ostrich 27: 88–10.
  • Brown, C. & Brown, B. 1999. Barn Swallow (Hirudo rustica). Pp. 1-32 in A. Pode, F. Gill, eds. The Birds of North America. Vol. 452. Philadalphia, P.A: The Birds of North America.
  • Chittenden, H., Davies, G. & Weiersbye, I. 2016. Roberts Bird Guide. 2nd Ed. Jacana Media. Cape Town.
  • Cramp, S. & Simmons, K.E.L. (eds). 1977-1994. Handbook of the birds of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The birds of the western Palearctic. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Dean, W.R.J, MacDonald, I.A.W. 1981. A review of African birds feeding in association with mammals.  Ostrich 52: 135-155.
  • Earlé, R.A. 1997. European Swallow. In: Harrison JA et al. (eds). The Atlas of Southern African Birds. Vol. 2: 48-49. BirdLife South Africa, Johannesburg.
  • Engen, S., Sӕther, B.E. & Møller, A.P. 2001. Stochastic population dynamics and time to extinction of a declining population of barn swallows. Journal of Animal Ecology 70: 789-797.
  • Haemig, P.D., Hernandez, J., Waldenström, J., Bonnedahl, J. & Olsen, B. 2008. “Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) test negative for Salmonella”. Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases 8(4): 451–454.
  • Hagemeijer, W.J.M, Blair, M.J. 1997. The EBCC Atlas of European Breeding Birds: their Distribution and Abundance. Poyser, London.
  • Harrison, J.A., Allan, D.G., Underhill, L.G., Herremans, M., Tree, A.J., Parker, V. & Brown, C.J. eds. 1997. The atlas of southern African birds. Vol2: Passerines. BirdLife South Africa, Johannesburg.
  • Hockey, P.A.R., Dean, W.R.J. & Ryan, P.G. 2005. Roberts – Birds of the southern Africa, Viith Ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird book Fund, Cape Town.
  • Keith, S., Urban, E.K. & Fry, C.H. 1992. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 4. Academic Press, London.
  • Martin, P. 1995. Rain induced mortality of European Swallows. Bee-eater 46: 20-21.
  • Møller, A.P. & Tegelstrom, H. 1997. “Extra-pair paternity and tail ornamentation in the barn swallow”. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 41(5): 353–360.
  • NatureServe. 2010. NatureServe Explorer: An online Encyclopedia of Life (Web Application) Version 7.1. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia. Available:
  • Oatley, T.B. 2000. Migrant European Swallows Hirundo rustica in Southern Africa: a southern perspective. Ostrich 71: 205-209.
  • Perrins, C. 1989. Encyclopedia of Birds. Equinox Ltd.
  • Vincent, J. 1969. Mortility among Swallows Hirundo rustica. Lammergeyer 10: 97-98.
  • Shields, W.M. 1984. Factors affecting nest and site fidelity in Adirondack Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica). Auk 101: 780-789.
  • Smith, H.G. & Montgomerie, R. 1991. Sexual selection and the tail ornaments of North American barn Swallows. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 28:195-201.
  • Van den Brink, B. & Van der Have, T.M. 1993. Swallow ringing in the Netherlands and southern Africa: the Botswana Swallow Project. Safring News 22: 27-30.
  • Wolfe, D. 1994. Brown headed Cowbirds fledged from Barn swallow & American Robin nests. Wilson bulletin 106: 764-767.

Author: Dikobe Molepo & The Rural Citizen Science Birding Project, Team Finches (Cynthia Baloyi, Tsakane Chabalala, Thandy Chauke, Cheryl Manganyi & Macmeeken Manganyi).
SANBI, Zoological Systematics
Tel.: 012 843 5146
Cell: 083 985 9228

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