Three Tips for Identifying Swallows

swallow under bridge

Barn swallow sitting under a bridge – notice the long, forked tail

Juvenile tree swallow (inset shows the blue color coming in)

Juvenile tree swallow (inset shows the blue color coming in)

nest

Barn swallow in nest under gazebo

swallow hole

A hole in the dam makes a great nesting spot for a tree swallow

flying tree swallow

Tree swallow in flight

I’ve always liked looking at birds, but swallows in particular are fun to watch. They tend to be in groups, flying and swooping down and around. When we are out near the water or in a park, we see them acrobatically flying back and forth catching insects.

The most common types of swallows we see in my area of New Jersey are barn swallows, purple martins and tree swallows. The other day, I saw some swallows that I couldn’t identify right away. I ruled out the barn swallow, but was still unsure what kind they were. Despite the white on the breast, they didn’t have the glossy-blue color of tree swallows. I took some photos and after I downloaded the pictures on the computer, I was able to look at them more closely. Little areas of blue were beginning to appear on the feathers; they were juvenile tree swallows.

When trying to identify swallows, here are three helpful tips to consider:

  1. Tail — When flying or perching on a wire, barn swallows are the easiest to identify by their distinctive tail. It’s long, pointy and deeply forked. Most other swallows have tails that are forked, but not nearly as prominent as the barn swallow.
  2. Color — It’s not too difficult to spot the orangey-blue color of the barn swallow. The blue on the face is so dark it’s hard to see their eyes. Cliff swallows have similar coloring, but without the prominent barn swallow tail. Purple martins are completely dark and are the largest type of swallow. Tree swallows are darkish blue on top and white underneath. If the swallow you are trying to identify is a juvenile, it can be a little tricky, especially if the lighting is poor and you are too far away for a good look.
  3. Nest — Barn swallows like the eaves! Of course, they are noted for nesting inside barns, but I’ve seen them build underneath an overpass on top of the support beams and on the small inner ledge of a gazebo. Tree swallows seem to favor a more closed-in location. Recently, I found some nesting inside the drilled out holes of a concrete dam. Purple martins can be very happy nesting inside manmade martin housing. When you see swallows flying around, try to watch where they go. When they return to their nests, you have another clue to their identity.

6 responses to “Three Tips for Identifying Swallows

  1. We have barn swallows that nest every spring under the porch eave and as pretty as they are to warmth, yowsa, what a mess their droppings leave. And don’t try to open the door to walk on the porch when they are nesting. Can you say kamikaze!?

    As usual Nature, great photos and lots of good information.

  2. Typo *warmth* = watch. Darn iPhone autocorrect.

  3. I do carpentry work and I am building a gazebo for some of friends and barn swallows have started building a nest just as we where starting too screen it in. What can I do to accommodate the nesters because if I screen it in they will be no longer able to enter?

    • Sounds like you are a great carpenter! I recently read an article about “bird-friendly” construction but I can’t find it. (Will keep looking for it.) I’ve also read that they can sometimes get through screens. Is there a way to extend an overhang with an inside ledge outside the screen area so they can still nest? Anyone else have any suggestions for Steve?

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