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Barn Swallow Babies

Photo by Molly Fifield Murray,  Education Director at UW-Madison Arboretum and Center for Restoration Ecology

Which baby do you think will be fed next?
 
Photo by Molly Fifield Murray,  Education Director at UW-Madison Arboretum and Center for Restoration Ecology
Why do you think these babies stay so close together?
 
Photo by Molly Fifield Murray,  Education Director at UW-Madison Arboretum and Center for Restoration Ecology
Why do you think these babies are all facing the same way?
Baby swallows usually hatch in May. They start out inside creamy or pinkish white eggs splotched and dotted with reddish and purplish brown, weighing about 2 grams. They live in the egg for about 2 weeks. When they hatch, the babies' eyes are closed, and they are naked except for some gray tufts of feathers on their forehead, shoulders, head, and back. It doesn't take long for baby swallows to feather out.

With their colorful mouth linings, bright sparkly eyes, and soft plumage, many people find baby Barn Swallows especially endearing. These little birds remain in the nest until they are 18-23 days old and weigh about 17.5 grams. Compare that to baby robins, which fledge when they are 14-16 days old and weigh over 50 grams!


Fledging From High Places
Swallows don't nest in trees. A swallow builds its nest on a barn rafter, bridge overhang, or other structure well off the ground. If a baby swallow doesn't make a strong first flight, it will crash on the ground. In order to survive this first flight, a swallow fledgling must have strong wings. That's why it starts exercising, flapping its little wings hard, by the time it's 9 days old. When it's time to fledge, some babies look out at the big world, flap their wings, and suddenly take off! But other babies are more reluctant to fly out. One summer Journey North science writer Laura Erickson watched a family of four baby Barn Swallows for a few days. One morning about an hour after sunrise, she noticed that two of the babies had already left the nest. When Laura checked on the babies at lunchtime, a third baby had fledged. But the fourth baby just sat--still in the nest, looking around but not budging. Laura sat down and watched as the mother flew up to the nest. She hovered in one spot for over a minute, chattering and looking directly at her baby as if to say, "Come on!" The mother swallow did this many times over the next two hours. During that time, Laura did not see her feed the baby at all. Finally, Laura had to leave for a few minutes. When she came back, the baby was out of the nest, perched on a tree branch with its brothers and sisters, and Laura was sad to have missed its triumphant first flight.

If you have a Barn Swallow nest near your home, check on the babies every day or two. Try to spend extra time near the nest when the babies are getting close to fledging, and see if you can watch them fledge. If you see a Barn Swallow's first flight, write to us at Journey North and describe what you saw!


Try This! Discussion or Journaling Questions

  • Why do you think the few feathers on baby barn swallows at hatching are all on the upper rather than the lower side of the body?
  • Why do you think that baby swallows remain in the nest so much longer than baby robins even though swallows don't have to grow as much? (HINT: Think about the different places their nests are in and the different foods they eat.)

After you think about and discuss your answers--including the three questions asked in the photo captions above-- compare your answers with bird expert Laura Erickson's answers here.

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