Barn Swallows are nesting in the Piney Woods

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

• Louisiana Ecrivisse
• Boyce LA

Swallows are the epitome of avian grace and beauty. Although small, they are most graceful species of birds with long, curved wings, slender bodies and aerodynamic tails. Common nesting swallows in our region include the Purple Martin, Barn Swallow, and Cliff Swallow. While Purple Martins have been historically common nesters, Barn and Cliff swallows did not become especially abundant until 20-30 years ago. Now both species are regularly seen nesting in mud nests situated on bridges and highway overpasses and in culverts as well as buildings including “barns”!

Something lacking in our region are caves that are common in the rocky regions of Texas and New Mexico. That’s where one had to go to find Cave Swallows as recently as 20 years ago. They built their nests on the vertical walls of caves near their entrances. [Note that the one exception to this “rule” was/is a small population of Cave Swallows in south Florida using overpasses and bridges for nesting sites.]

In 2000, anyone recording a Cave Swallow in Louisiana had to provide specific details for the Louisiana Bird Records Committee to accept the report. Currently, Cave Swallow is no longer on the LBRC’s list of rarities. So, what’s happened?

Like their Cliff and Barn swallow cousins, Cave Swallows found the bridges and overpasses associated with the massive Eisenhower highway building program initiated in the 1950s to be acceptable nesting locations. Not as numerous as the other two species, it’s just taken longer for Cave Swallows to expand their populations and move outward from border areas of Texas and New Mexico.

The Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology maintains a massive cyber avian bird data website called ebird (www.ebird.org ). Reviewing the data sets for Cave Swallows shows their presence in the April-June breeding season all along I-10 across Louisiana into western Florida and northward along major US highways and I-49 to Arkansas. Likewise, breeding period reports are seen across Texas well north of the historic breeding range.

Often birds disperse widely after the spring-summer breeding season. Cave Swallows are now being found well into the central and eastern USA in the fall, often in association with low pressure weather systems.

Unless a swallow is perched, itThe easiest way to tell if there are ’s rather hard to see details as they sweep back and forth through the sky capturing huge volumes of flying insects. Cave, Cliff or Barn swallows around is to find their nests. Cave Swallow nests are open cups at the top of a column of mud pellets. Cliff Swallow nests are enclosed, gourd-shaped, mud pellet structures. Barn Swallow nests are simple cups of mud pellets.

Barn Swallows have long, deeply forked tails that are diagnostic. Throats are reddish-brown and backs are blue-black. Both Cave and Cliff swallows have slightly indented, squarish tails and buffy rumps. The Cave Swallow has a dark crown, a rich cinnamon forehead and a buffy throat and face. The Cliff Swallow has a dark crown but the forehead is white and the throat and face are a dark chestnut color.

Barn Swallows colonized the Gulf South well before Cliff Swallows but never generated the huge colonies of Cliff Swallows. Cliff Swallows displace Barn Swallows but prefer large, open vistas with Barn Swallows finding nesting sites in more restricted locations. Cave Swallows are not yet abundant but nest in Cliff Swallow colonies. There are even reports that the two species hybridize!

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