What are Swallows?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Swallows are a large family of passerine birds in the family Hirundiniae. They are perhaps most famous for their seasonal mass migrations, which include scores of birds which often travel between continents. Swallows can be found all over the world, and many cultures have specific myths and legends which pertain to swallows. Many communities, for example, view swallows as good luck, and destruction of their nests is viewed as unlucky, especially for farmers with livestock.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

The term "passerine" is used to encompass a huge order of birds. Passerines are incredibly diverse, coming in a range of sizes, shapes, and colors. Many people call them "songbirds," although not all passerines sing. They are perhaps better known as "perching birds," because they have special adaptations which allow them to perch, including a unique backward-facing toe which assists them in gripping branches.

A typical swallow has a streamlined, muscular body which is built for flying, with dark plumage which may be marked with iridescent accents. These birds classically have pointed wings and notched or forked tails which create a very distinctive silhouette in the air as they fly. Swallows are also famous for their large mouths, designed to help them quickly and efficiently catch insects while in flight. Baby swallows tend to be dwarfed by their mouths when they open them, creating a very comic appearance.

Many people are familiar with barn or cliff swallows, who like to build their nests in eaves and rafters of human constructions. Swallows may also nest in trees, and in all cases, they build mud nests which are extremely strong and well insulated. The parents typically cooperate to raise their hungry young, and the birds are monogamous, establishing breeding territories which they return to again and again.

There are least 100 known swallow species, making these birds quite diverse. Depending on the species, a swallow can produce a variety of vocalizations, ranging from cheeps and peeps to true birdsong. Male swallows often sing to attract mates in the spring. Many people view swallows as signs of seasonal change, since they return to northern climates to mate and raise their young in the spring and fly south in the fall.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


When I was a child in a one room primary school in Greece, apart from the blackboard in front of the 84 pupil combined classes and a slate to write on, we had only our most beautiful teacher, Mr. Christos.

One day, a package arrived from the Queen of Greece, Frederica. The teacher held up the box, and said "our Queen Frederica has sent all you a present". We who never had more than a a handful of nuts or on a very special occasion an orange as a present were thrilled.

On opening the box Mr. Christos lifted up a multicoloured rubber ball, then another. There were six different sizes, which he handed to the six rows of class 1 to Class 6. We all touched and smelled the rubber, holding the balls like precious jewels, as they were passed from hand to hand. Mr. Christos send us outside to play with the balls for half an hour.

Our joy and screams must have filled the village, when suddenly one of the Grade 6 boys kicked the ball into the air and into a window with 30 centimeter square pieces of glass, and broke the very top pane.

All 84 children came to a standstill and in shocked silence stood and looked at the window of our most precious one room school. It was sacrilege of the highest order to damage our much loved school.

Mr. Christos came out looking very sad, and before he could say a word, one swallow and then another flew into our school through the broken window.

In silence, we watched the swallows come out and go over the fence to the middle of the muddy road to pick up some mud and return through the window to start building their nest.

Mr. Christos then said, "We cannot fix the glass until the swallows leave in Autumn, but it is very good luck for the swallows have chosen to live with us," and went inside without saying anything to the very sad boy who kicked the ball.

I live in three little houses from one end of the world to the other. In all three houses I have swallows living with me. All three houses are comfortable for me and the swallows, and we live in good health.


Birds, and specifically swallows, are also becoming a very popular icon in artwork and clothing. I think this is because of what this article mentions about the way these birds are known for their migration and their muscular silhouette in flight.


There are many places which commemorate the time of year when the swallows return, and think of it as a mark of the season changing. I think it's interesting that many of us might think of robins as a sign of spring when really, swallow migrations are a much better way to tell when spring and fall have come.


Nothing was mentioned about the swallows who "Come back to San Juan Capistrano" every year on March 19, the feast Of St. Joseph.

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