Just watching the activity at two dozen Barn Swallow nests would be enough to tire out Superwoman/Superman. At a barn near Speedwell Forge in northern Lancaster County, nests have become beehives– so to speak– of movement.
As they wander through the barn, people are strafed by busy, impatient parent swallows.
The one-half to a three-quarter inch long eggs have hatched, filling the mud nests with loud and demanding babies, averaging five to a nest. Their parents, some with additional helpers, built the nests on the wooden barn beams, sometimes taking 1,300 trips to complete the ‘home’. Now, it’s all about the feeding.
The parents spent winter in Central and South America and flew as much as 600 miles a day to reach this barn and raise another family. It might be a familiar location, as most return to the same area and more than 40 percent of Barn Swallows re-use the same nest.
A common story is that Barn Swallows are good for ridding neighborhoods of mosquitoes. But skeeters are too tiny for the Barn Swallows to waste their time chasing. Grasshoppers, dragonflies, house flies, beetles, bees, wasps, ants, butterflies, moths and flying ants are their main diet. Swallows must eat their weight in bugs per day, or 60 insects per hour– more than 800 a day.
Now, multiply that times the baby mouths in the nest. That’s some serious bug catching.
And that illustrates why the Barn Swallow population has declined one percent per year since 1966, or 46 percent. Cornell University published one report that “connected the ecological dots, pointing to problems in the food chain”.
Numbers of six of the eight kinds of North American swallows are falling, and all have similar diets– bugs. And this food source, for whatever reason, is also declining.
But you wouldn’t know it from the food trips the parents are taking. Every 20 seconds or so, an adult returns– bug in beak– for one of the screaming babies.
Barn Swallows catch their dinner in flight or sometimes right off a barn wall. They never slow up to drink, skimming across a nearby farm pond.
It’s a long haul for the parents, but the babies will leave the nest within two to four weeks.
And it all begins again.