Swallows belong to the family Hirundininae which also includes martins. There are 84 recognised species worldwide.
They are not even distantly related to swifts.
Our familiar swallow, Hirundo rustica, is generally known as the barn swallow. It breeds throughout the Northern Hemisphere including every European country except Iceland.
The barn swallow is the world’s most widespread swallow but several similar species breed in Africa. Australia’s welcome swallow is also closely related.
In Norway and Finland swallows nest well north of the Arctic Circle.
European swallows mostly winter in Africa south of the Sahara. Curiously, populations from the British Isles and northern Europe winter farther south than those from central and southern Europe, flying all the way to Botswana and South Africa.
A few regularly spend the winter in southern Spain.
They like to nest in open-fronted buildings such as barns, stables and cowsheds.
It takes a pair of swallows up to 1,200 journeys to build a nest.Only the female lines the nest.
Swallows like to nest close to large domestic animals like cattle or horses. The decline in dairy farming in the UK and the resulting increase in arable farming has not suited the species.
Most British swallows try to rear two broods each summer and some succeed in raising three.
Europe’s population is thought to number about 15 million individuals, with the biggest numbers in Poland and Bulgaria. Britain’s 1 million ranks us in eleventh place.
Red-rumped swallows are spreading steadily north from the Mediterranean and small numbers of over shooting birds occur here every spring.
Swallows were likely to have been much rarer before man started practising agriculture and animal husbandry.
While Mediterranean swallows often fledge their first broods in April, birds that breed in northern Scandinavia seldom arrive before the third week of May.
The male swallow invariably arrives back first from migration, singing over his territory in the hope of attracting a mate. Females generally appear a week to a fortnight later.
Male and female swallows are virtually identical in appearance.
They will readily adopt artificial nests that resemble their own mud-built constructions.
Much folklore surrounds the swallow. To see the first swallow of the year is regarded as a good omen. In Russia songs were written to celebrate their return after the long, cold winter.
Before the mysteries of migration were understood, it was thought that swallows spent the winter buried in the mud of ponds and lakes.
Swallows always drink on the wing, flying low to sip the water.