About the Barn Swallow in Europe.
The Barn Swallow (hirundo rustica) is one of the world’s most widely distributed and common bird species. It is found throughout much of the world, and can be seen on all of the continents bar Australia. It is a distinctive bird with blue upper parts, a long, deeply forked tail and curved, pointed wings. It is found throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. In English-speaking Europe it is just called the Swallow; in Northern Europe it is the only common species called a "swallow.” In Africa it has been known as the “European Swallow” because of its long migration from northern hemisphere Europe, to deep southern Africa.
The Barn Swallow is remarkable for the incredibly long migrations that it undertakes every year. Birds from different parts of Europe, migrate southwards to avoid the harsh northern hemisphere winters, and spread across the vast African continent to exploit the abundant insects that form the bulk of their food during the African summer. It returns to the northern hemisphere at the beginning of the southern hemisphere winter, and breeds during the northern summer, usually in nests constructed in barns or barn-like outbuildings, hence the common name “Barn Swallow.” Whilst the migration of the Barn Swallow to and from Africa is now well known, this was not always so.
Gilbert White, (1720 – 1793), the English Naturalist, was one of the first people to study the habits of the Swallow in England, and was certainly one of the first to refer to it as the Barn Swallow. He did so in 1798 in his work The Natural History of Selborne.
“The swallow, though called the chimney-swallow, by no means builds altogether in chimnies [sic], but often within barns and out-houses against the rafters... In Sweden she builds in barns, and is called ladu swala, the barn-swallow.”
Despite his, and the research work of other naturalist of the time, no-one knew for certain whether the Barn Swallow hibernated during the northern winter, or migrated. The popular belief was that they hibernated during the winter, as evidenced in a letter which appears in the Natural History of Selborne, and which is reproduced below.
TO THE HON. DAINES BARRINGTON SELBORNE, JANUARY 1774
Dear Sir, - The house-swallow, or chimney-swallow, is, undoubtedly, the first comer of all British hirundines ; and appears in general on or about the thirteenth of April, as I have remarked from many years’ observation. Not but now and then a straggler is seen much earlier : and, in particular, when I was a boy, I observed a swallow for a whole day together on a sunny warn Shrove Tuesday, which day could not fall out later than the middle of March, and often happened early in February. It is worth remarking, that these birds are seen first about lakes and mill-ponds; and it is also very particular, that, if these early visitors happen to find frost and snow, as was the case of the two dreadful springs of 1770 and 1771, they immediately withdraw for a time; a circumstance this, much more in favour of hiding than migration; since it is much more probable that a bird should retire to its hybernaculum (place of hibernation) just at hand, than return for a week or two only to warmer latitudes.
The swallow, though called the chimney-swallow, by no means builds altogether in chimneys, but often within barns and out-houses, against the rafters; and so she did in Virgil’s time ….
In Sweden she builds in barns, and is called ladu swala (the barn swallow.)
To learn about Gilbert White, please click onthe Gilbert White tab on the home page of this site.
The picture below shows parent and fledged juvenile Barn Swallows from a nest in a shed in St. Clears, south Wales in the UK in 2010. The nest in this shed is protected and monitored every year by the owner of the property.
Migration of Barn Swallows between Britain and South Africa was first established on 23 December 1912, when a bird that had been ringed by James Masefield at a nest in Staffordshire, was found in Natal. This showed that swallows from Britain migrated to the extreme southern end of Africa. This first ringing recovery was made in Natal on the east coast of South Africa, at a place known as Umhlanga, a few miles away from a site known as Mount Moreland.
About the Barn Swallow in Mount Moreland, South Africa
Mount Moreland, in the sub-tropical paradise that is KwaZulu Natal on the south eastern coast of South Africa, is home to a fantastic natural spectacle that takes place every day during the hot, humid summers.
At dusk every day during their summer sojourn in southern KZN, 1% of the world's population of Barn Swallows (hirundo rustica) fly in from far-flung feeding areas, and descend on the large reedbeds, their over-night roost, adjacent to the village. In a spectacular display that lasts scarcely 30 minutes, huge numbers of swallows congregate in swirling mass above the reedbeds, then drop down into the reeds for the night. For a short period, the sky is a picture of swirling movement as the tiny birds, summer migrants to southern Africa from Europe, wait for their moment to drop into the roost.
Within minutes of the start of the descent into the reeds, the sky is clear and quiet, as the birds settle down for the night.
The residents of Mount Moreland appreciate and understand the importance of the site to the swallows, and to South Africa as a whole, and a Conservancy has been established to attempt to preserve the habitat of the location, and of the village, for the swallows.
Visit their website on
A typical view of thousands of Barn Swallows congregating at Mount Moreland
In this video, the masses of swallows can be seen swirling and wheeling above the reed beds, then dropping into them.
A larger-screen view of this video can be viewed on You Tube by double-clicking on the picture.