Swallows, swifts and martins are beautiful, graceful birds that are highly desirable backyard visitors, but they are not typical backyard birds and attracting swallows can be a challenge even for experienced backyard birders. Understanding these birds' unique needs is the key to learning how to attract swallows and enjoy the benefits of having these beauties in your yard.
Why We Love Swallows
Swallows are attractive backyard birds for several reasons. Their graceful, aerobatic, energetic flight can be a joy to watch as they swoop about, and their glossy plumage glitters in the sunlight. They are relatively quiet species and while their song is typically musical and chirping, they are less vocal than species such as thrushes or mockingbirds – perfect for backyard birders who prefer a quieter landscape. The most desirable characteristic of swallows, swifts and martins, however, is their voracious appetites. These insectivorous birds can consume hundreds of insects every day, and inviting a family of them into the backyard can provide exceptional (and free!) pest control.
The swallow species and related birds that are most commonly found in urban and suburban areas, and can thus be attracted to bird-friendly backyards, include:
- Barn swallow
- Chimney swift
- Cliff swallow
- House martin
- Pacific swallow
- Purple martin
- Tree swallow
- Violet-green swallow
- Wire-tailed swallow
Any of these swallow species would be a welcome guest in a birder's backyard, but those yards need to be swallow-friendly before the birds will appear.
How to Attract Swallows, Swifts and Martins
The key to attracting any specific type of bird is to meet that bird's unique requirements for the basic needs of survival: food, water, shelter and nesting sites. For swallows, swifts and martins, those requirements can be a bit different than other typical passerines.
- Food: These are insectivorous birds and do not typically visit bird feeders, and preserving healthy insect populations is essential for swallows to have an adequate food source. Avoiding the use of insecticides and pesticides is the first step, and areas of open grass should be large enough to allow the birds to skim low over them while feeding. Leaving grass slightly longer will encourage more insects for the birds to feed on. Some birders have had success offering mealworms for swifts and swallows to eat, but it takes a great deal of time and effort to get the birds accustomed to that unusual food source, and that effort may be better spent fostering natural insect sources.
- Water: These birds typically stay near natural water sources, and a nearby lake, large pond or broad stream is essential for them to drink – they skim the water to dip their bills in for a drink instead of perching to sip. Moving water is more apt to attract swallows, swifts and martins to backyards, and a bird bath fountain, bubbler or mister can be effective in attracting their attention. They may visit larger bird baths, and will often fly through sprinklers for a quick, cool dip.
- Shelter: While many backyard birds need extensive trees, bushes and thickets to feel safe and secure, these aerial birds are quite distinct in that they prefer more open areas. They are agile fliers and will soar and dive around yards that have smooth curves and open space, and providing perching spots on wires, clotheslines or antennas will encourage them to stay nearby.
- Nesting Sites: Many types of swallows, swifts and martins are cavity-nesting birds and they will readily nest in bird houses or specialized gourds. Leaving dead trees with old woodpecker holes intact will provide additional nesting sites, and other swallow species will build their cup-shaped nests in sheltered areas under eaves on porches and decks or along rooflines. A muddy puddle – perhaps under a gutter downspout or in a sheltered location in the yard – will provide a good source of nesting material to encourage the birds to raise their families in the neighborhood.
More Tips for Attracting Swallows
Even in the most swallow-friendly backyard, it can be difficult to attract these specialized birds on a regular basis. If you want to attract swallows but are having difficulty, consider…
- Removing large trees to provide more open space and more grassy areas for the birds to fly over while feeding.
- Adjusting lawn watering schedules as much as local ordinances may allow to provide a fly-thru water source for the birds.
- Putting up wires high across the yard or roof to provide additional perches with good visibility for birds and birders alike.
Patience is essential for attracting swallows, and over time, if you meet all these birds' unique needs, you will be rewarded with their elegant and graceful company.
Photo – Barn Swallow © Linda Tanner