In Barn Swallow Nest Disruption, Horse Barn Loses Natural Bug Control

By Kate Kaye, Bird Alliance of Oregon Volunteer

The arrival of Barn Swallows is an annual sign of spring in horse barns and stables, and many relish their seasonal arrival…but not all. When some Portland-area equestrians discovered Barn Swallow excrement in their horse’s water troughs, rather than rejoice in the presence of these jewel-hued Swallows, they evicted them.

Last week, the ten Barn Swallow nestlings were brought to the Wildlife Care Center here at Bird Alliance of Oregon. The babies are now separated from their adult parents who appear to have taken the hint to leave the barn.

Although bug-eating Barn Swallows help with insect control, some people see these birds as troublesome. Lacy Campbell, Bird Alliance of Oregon’s Wildlife Care Center Manager put it bluntly. “They poop a lot.”

The Barn Swallow family had been residing above horse troughs where the adults molded mud, grass, feathers – and possibly even horse hair – to construct their nest. Barn Swallows prefer to build their elaborate clay-like nests under eaves, rafters, and cross-beams of barns, sheds and stables, in addition to under bridges or wharfs. So, they often can be found tucked into the nooks of a horse barn where considerate barn keepers sometimes even leave horse hair bundles for use in their nest construction. These birds have also been known to return to nests they built in previous years.

“Almost every farm in the state has a pair or two nesting in an outbuilding, and very few bridges do not have a pair or two,” states Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, in regard to Barn Swallows.

Not only are these birds prevalent in barns this time of year, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits tampering with nests, so it was a violation of federal law to destroy the active nest.

A Temporary Home at the Wildlife Care Center

As for the orphaned Barn Swallows, since the nest was no longer intact and their parents appeared to have moved on, bringing the nestlings to the Wildlife Care Center was the right thing to do to ensure optimum care and likelihood of survival. Even with the benefit of rehabilitation at the Care Center, swallows stand a significantly reduced chance of survival coming out of captivity, especially given their specialized skills.

Upon arrival, our staff inspected the nestlings who were found to have no injuries. Just like the many crow, robin and jay nestlings and fledglings cared for at the center, the baby Barn Swallows spent several days under the watchful eyes of our capable staff and volunteers before being released recently following rehabilitation.

Most of our rehabilitating bird patients are fed the same baby bird food diet. However, unlike songbirds, Swallows require a special insect diet. Staff and volunteers fed the Swallow nestlings insects such as meal worms.

“Normally the parents would catch insects in flight and feed them to the babies,” said Sam DeJarnett, a Wildlife Care Center staff member.

The orphaned Swallows were rehabilitated and released back into the wild where they belong and can thrive. But they didn’t have to be away from their natural surroundings at all. These beloved birds, known for their graceful winged antics, not only delight many a horse lover, they provide a welcome service: They eat bugs — a lot of them. Barn Swallows gobble up flies, beetles, bees, wasps, ants, butterflies, moths and other flying insects. These birds are known for capturing their insect prey and drinking water while in midair flight.

Horse experts at say horse keepers should “Encourage insect-eating birds to move onto your property to reduce the flying insect population. Swallows are a tremendous asset to horse properties. One adult swallow consumes thousands of soft-bodied flying insects per day—that’s better than a bug zapper.”

Peaceful Horse-Swallow Cohabitation

Despite the benefits of pest control, bird poop is no fun for anyone, particularly not when it lands in the water or food troughs our equine friends visit throughout the day for their own nourishment. So, it stands to reason that horse owners and caretakers may not only be annoyed by the presence of bird poop in their troughs, but concerned about the health of their horses as a result.

However, we suggest more patience in such situations, particularly in an already less-than-pristine horse barn. Nesting Barn Swallows are only a short-term problem. Once the babies leave the nest, they no longer stay in one concentrated area. Many horse experts make due with the presence of swallows by cleaning buckets regularly, sweeping aisles and bird-proofing feed bunks. Some suggest placing nets in rafters to prevent Swallows from building their nests in certain spots. Positioning an owl decoy to serve as barn sentry isn’t a bad idea either!

When animals and humans interact, there are always new things to learn. This baby bird season, let’s foster an environment in which birds can cohabitate in harmony with other animals, wildlife and humans.

Kate Kaye is a volunteer at Bird Alliance of Oregon’s Wildlife Care Center. A veteran tech and data reporter who has appeared on NPR’s On the Media, Weekend Edition Sunday and at events held by Yale Law School and Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, Kate is also the author of the book, “Campaign ’08: A Turning Point for Digital Media.

Every year the Wildlife Care Center treats 3,000 injured or orphaned native animals. If you would like to make a donation to support our wildlife rehabilitation work at the Wildlife Care Center, click here.