Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Martins and the Swallows
Nature Bulletin No. 223-A   March 26, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Each spring for many years a pair of Barn Swallows have returned to a cup of hardened mud plastered on an overhead beam just inside our barn door. Once, the nest was knocked down by an overcurious boy, but the swallows rebuilt it with fresh mud pellets interwoven with grass -- on the same spot with the same rusty nail as an anchor. From April until September they elect themselves members of our family, just as they adopted our predecessors who lived there ever since that barn was built to stable a team of horses, fifty or more years ago. Since time immemorial swallows have cast their lot with man and repay his protection by their cheerful twittering, and by gleaning insects from his gardens and fields.

All kinds of swallows seem to enjoy flying and spend more time on the wing than any other birds. They have slender graceful bodies, long tapered wings for swift flight, and all except one have long forked or notched tails. Their beaks are short and wide for catching insects on the wing. The legs are short and the feet are weak. All except one migrate to far South America for the winter.

Six common kinds nest over most of the United States. The largest is the Purple Martin of which the male is shining blue-black all over and the female brownish with a gray throat. Supposedly, they once nested in hollow trees but, long before the coming of white men, the Indians made martin nests from empty gourds hung on poles in their gardens and corn patches. Now, martins nest almost exclusively in specially built "apartment houses" mounted on poles. They boldly attack crows and hawks but are often crowded out of their houses by English sparrows and starlings.

The Tree Swallows nest in tree holes or in ordinary bird boxes, preferably near marshes and ponds. There they skim the surface for mosquitoes and other aquatic insects. They occasionally eat seeds and berries. The head and back of the adults are metallic greenish black, and the breast pure white. This is the swallow which often lines telephone wires for miles in late summer before they migrate south.

The Barn Swallow, with it's deeply forked tail, has that well-tailored look -- a smooth blue serge tail-coat and a reddish brown vest. Formerly they nested in caverns and under overhanging cliffs, but now they stick close to man' s barns, bridges, and other buildings. They boldly "dive bomb" cats, dogs and people who venture near their young as they teach them to fly and feed on the wing.

The Cliff Swallows are better named Eaves Swallows because, nowadays, they most commonly build their mud nests in large colonies under the eaves of buildings. One barn near Deerfield, Wisconsin, has over two thousand nests under its eaves. This is the swallow with a square tail. Otherwise it is similar to the barn swallow except that its forehead is orange instead of white.

The Bank Swallow and the Rough-winged Swallow are similar in habits and appearance. Both are grayish above but the first has a white throat and breast crossed by a brownish band, whereas the latter has a gray breast. They differ from other swallows by nesting in holes which they dig deep into steep sandy banks.

The cigar-shaped Chimney Swift, remarkable for its speed and agility in the air, and which glues a nest of twigs on the inside of unused chimneys, is not a swallow at all, but a relative of the hummingbirds.

The Martins and the Coys were feudin' fightin' boys -- but the martins and the swallows live in peace .

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