Always in Season: Barn swallows are a love-hate species

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The barn swallow is a pretty little bird.

It also can be an aggressive little pest.

Therefore, human beings, and this individual human, tend to have a love-hate relationship with the swallow.

In European folklore, the swallow was regarded as a sign of good luck, and swallows were encouraged to nest on structures. This they were more than happy to do. Swallows adapted to the vertical surfaces of human habitations, an improvement over the natural cliff faces they had favored. This phenomenon occurred in the Western Hemisphere, too. When European settlement began, barn swallows rapidly switched to sides of buildings, and even interiors, for their building sites.

On the farm in Mountrail County, my father welcomed the swallows, and we children were encouraged to appreciate them, too.

And swallows are easy to love.

They are quite beautifully colored, in deep purple and brick red. Their tails are impressively long. Their aerial maneuvers are stunning. Their twittering calls aren't quite musical, but they are pleasant nevertheless.

Lacking courtesy

The trouble with swallows is they don't observe the ordinary rules of courtesy, at least as we humans understand them.

Put plainly, they are trespassers. Barn swallows don't respect our rules of property.

This is the most frequent complaint against these birds, and the most often asked question is, "How do I keep the swallows from nesting above my door?"

It's true that nesting swallows can be a nuisance.

For one thing, they don't clean up after themselves.

Actually, that's not quite true. They keep their nest spaces tidy—but by dropping waste over the side.

Their construction methods are a little sloppy, too. Their basic building material is mud, often picked out of a convenient puddle. This they plaster against a wall, preferably under some sort of overhang that provides protection from both sunlight and rain.

Left to themselves, barn swallows will happily inhabit the interior of a structure, as well. I've found them in abandoned houses, for example, and they nested in the rafters of the barn on the farm where I grew up. We always left the door open for them.

Deterrent options

Of course, it's possible to discourage swallows. One method is simply to knock down the nest. This is best done early in the construction process. The birds will try and try again, but eventually, they'll move to a different—though nearby—spot.

Another trick is to hand something shiny and mobile in places where swallows aren't welcome. Strips of tinfoil might work. So might an aluminum pie plate.

Still, the swallows will find somewhere nearby to nest.

Nor do they nest alone.

Barn swallows form loose colonies, with individual pairs nesting at various spots on a single building or on nearby structures. One season, I counted 15 nesting attempts at our place west of Gilby, N.D.

The swallows are back this year, and their nesting efforts are in full swing.

It's not clear yet how many swallows I will be hosting.

The swallows have made me acutely aware of them, however. This season's colony seems especially aggressive, flying at me whenever I enter what they consider is their territory.

They are bold, too, getting plenty close enough that I can feel the air pumping through their wing feathers.

Honestly, an attacking barn swallow can part the hair on a bald man's head.

Still, the swallows are welcome, for their beauty and their sociability — but also for their utility. Swallows are insect eaters, and flying insects are almost their exclusive food. They don't eliminate the mosquito population. That would be too great a service to ask of them. They do reduce it, at least marginally, and that is welcome.

When we first moved onto our place west of Gilby, N.D., we had a small colony of cliff swallows.

These birds differ from barn swallows in three significant ways. They lack the long, forked tail that decorates the barn swallow — and is the male swallow's chief sexual adornment. Yes, size matters to swallows.

They build bottle-like nests, in contrast to the open cup-like nests that barn swallows construct.

And their colonies are often huge, sometimes numbering hundreds or even thousands of birds. Barn swallows are small town birds in comparison.

The cliff swallow may be the most numerous bird species in North Dakota. Colonies occur under bridges on rural roadways and over the Red River in downtown Grand Forks. They sometimes nest on buildings. In wild areas, including North Dakota's Badlands, they sometimes nest on cliff sides, as their ancestors did before America had barns and bridges.

Still, barn swallows are the more familiar species. They are "commensal" with humans, depending on us for nesting sites and rewarding us by eating flying insects and providing us with companionship and entertainment.

And perhaps good luck.