Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

Cover image of Barn Swallow by Andries de Vries – Middelburg district, Mpumalanga – BirdPix No. 266068

Identification

The Barn Swallow is a species that is familiar to many. It is conspicuous and in South Africa at least, is not likely to be confused with any other swallow.

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
Dinokeng, Gauteng
Photo by Philip Nieuwoudt

The sexes are closely alike but males have longer outer rectrices on the tail, and with larger white patches at the tail feather bases. Adults have dark chestnut fore heads with black lores. The crown down to the rump is dark glossy blue. On the underparts, the chin and throat are dark rufous, bordered by a broad blue-black breast band. The remainder of the underparts are white to off-white, often with a pinkish wash in fresh plumage. The flanks occasionally carry some chestnut feathers.

Hirundo rustica
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
Near Malmesbury, Western Cape
Photo by Gerald Wingate

The tail is glossy blueish-black with oval-shaped white patches on the inner webs of all but the central pair of tail feathers. The outermost pair of rectrices are elongated into streamers. The underwing coverts are white to off-white. The small, slender bill is black. The legs and feet are black and the eyes are dark brown.

Immature birds have paler, buff-grey foreheads and throats. The upper parts are browner and less glossy and the outer rectrices on the tail are shorter.

young Barn Swallow
Immature Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
Kruger National Park, Limpopo
Photo by Lappies Labuschagne

Status and Distribution

Barn Swallows breed throughout the Palaearctic and Nearctic and spend the non-breeding season in South America, Africa and southern Asia. The Barn Swallow is the most widespread swallow species in the world and is found on every continent except Antarctica. The total number of Barn Swallows from western Europe entering Africa every year has been estimated at 22-44 million and possibly twice that many come from eastern Europe and Asia.

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
Near Ashburton, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Malcolm Robinson

The Barn Swallow occurs throughout southern Africa and is an abundant non-breeding Palearctic migrant. The first birds arrive in September, with most appearing in October or early November.

The distribution of the Barn Swallow seems not to have changed in southern Africa but it is undergoing a slow, steady decline in many European countries.

SABAP2 distribution map for Barn Swallow
SABAP2 distribution map for Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) – May 2024.
Details for map interpretation can be found here.

In southern Africa, large-scale communal roosting in reedbeds means the Barn Swallow is vulnerable to accidental poisoning due to avicide spraying for the control of queleas and other pest seedeaters. The burning of reedbeds, which is particularly prevalent in dry years, may raise local mortalities. Despite this the Barn Swallow remains abundant, and is not globally threatened.

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
Kanonberg, Western Cape
Photo by Marius Meiring

Habitat

The Barn Swallow is found over all habitats in southern Africa, particularly in the moister east, favouring open grassland, pastures, cultivation, marshes and open water. The Barn Swallow is most abundant in the higher rainfall eastern half of the subcontinent. It is scarce in semi-arid and desert habitats, but can sometimes be locally common in the eastern Karoo and Kalahari. It is generally uncommon at high altitude, including the Drakensberg.

Habitat for Barn Swallow
Typical open habitat near water.
Isimangaliso Wetland Park, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Behaviour

The Barn Swallow is highly gregarious in southern Africa. They roost at night in reedbeds in large flocks numbering in the hundreds or thousands. At some roost sites, flocks are estimated to contain up to 3 million birds. Barn Swallows sometimes also roost in trees or in maize fields. Flocks usually break up into smaller groups and scatter widely by day.

Hirundo rustica
Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) gathering at a roosting site.
Darvill, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Malcolm Robinson

Barn Swallows drink regularly by skimming the surface of still water in flight. They forage aerially at all heights, often in the company of other swallows or swifts. The flight is quick and agile, often swooping low over the ground. They frequently perch low down or sit on the ground during inclement weather.

Barn Swallow
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
Carnarvon district, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

Barn Swallows may forage singly, or in loose groups of up to several hundred birds. Prey is captured in aerial pursuit and is less often seized off of vegetation or from the ground.

Hirundo rustica
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge, Free State
Photo by Mark Stanton

Barn Swallows feed predominantly on small flying insects such as flies, beetles, midges, mosquitoes, moths and wasps etc. They are also fond of ants which they pick from the ground whilst in flight. Similarly, plucks spiders, caterpillars and worms from vegetation. They are also known to feed on the fleshy arils of alien Rooikrans (Acacia cyclops) seeds.

Groups of Barn Swallows are sometimes attracted to grazing cattle, buffaloes or other large animals to feed on disturbed insects. They will also loosely follow vehicles and ploughs for the same reason.

Barn Swallow
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
Near Gouritzmond, Western Cape
Photo by Johan Van Rooyen

Before their northward departure in March and April, Barn Swallows gather in their hundreds or thousands. Perching on trees or utility lines, they excitedly ready themselves for their northwards migration where they may travel around 12 000 km in just 34 days or so.

Hirundo rustica
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
Chobe National Park, Botswana
Photo by Derek Solomon

Further Resources

Species text adapted from the first Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1), 1997. That text can be found here.

The use of photographs by Andries de Vries, Deon van der Hoven, Derek Solomon, Gerald Wingate, Johan Van Rooyen, Malcolm Robinson, Marius Meiring, Mark Stanton and Philip Nieuwoudt is acknowledged.

Virtual Museum (BirdPix > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name).

Other common names: European Swallow, Eurasian Swallow (Alt. English); Europese swael (Afrikaans); Mbawulwana (Tswana); iNkoniane (Zulu); Inkonjane (Xhosa); Hirondelle rustique (French); Rauchschwalbe (German); Andorinha-das-chaminés (Portuguese); Boerenzwaluw (Dutch).

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2024. Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/2024/05/16/barn-swallow-hirundo-rustica/

Bird identificationbirding

Hirundo rustica
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
Rietvleidam, Gauteng
Photo by Deon van der Hoven
Ryan Tippett
Ryan Tippett
Ryan is an enthusiastic contributor to Citizen Science and has added many important and interesting records of fauna and flora. He has been a member of the Virtual Museum since 2014 and has currently submitted over 12,000 records. He is on the expert identification panel for the OdonataMAP project. Ryan is a well-qualified and experienced Field Guide, and Guide Training Instructor. He has spent the last 18 years in the guiding and tourism industries. Ryan loves imparting his passion and knowledge onto others, and it is this that drew him into guide training in particular. Something that he finds incredibly rewarding is seeing how people he's had the privilege of teaching have developed and gone on to greater things. His interests are diverse and include Dragonflies, Birding, Arachnids, Amphibians, wild flowers and succulents, free diving and experiencing big game on foot. With this range of interests, there is always likely be something special just around the corner!