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Return of Swallows a Harbinger of Spring

A farm with livestock is also a farm with flies and other insect nuisances. It's frustrating, but it's just mother nature doing her thing. Fortunately, nature also provides some help with the issue in the form of swallows. These fantastic and fun to watch birds are more than happy to be on patrol all summer for us if we simply provide them a suitable home and stay out of their way.

On our farm there are two primary birds in the swallow family that spend the summers with us. The first is the purple martin. Martins arrive in the spring and, in the eastern United States, primarily make their homes in next boxes provided by people. However, they aren't too picky. Martin condominiums can house a dozen or more birds. They also readily accept houses made of gourds and other natural items. Their primary requirements in choosing a home is height from the ground (10-15ft) and distance from trees and buildings. They prefer to be out in the open and will often reject a location that is too close to buildings or tree lines

We have martin houses in fence lines near cow watering areas. Cattle tend to congregate in areas with water, which means flies and other critters also congregate in these areas. The martins fly in and around the cows all day like little fighter jets, happily eating these pests!

Each spring we do any required maintenance on the boxes and clean out any nest residue from the previous year, and the birds take care of the rest. It's important to clean out martin houses in early March, as they may not accept a nest box with debris in it--especially debris from another species.

Unfortunately, opportunistic birds such as sparrows will also claim a nest box spot if given the opportunity. However, if only a few sparrows move into a large house and it's impossible to evict the unwanted squatters without disturbing the neighboring martins, they can coexist for the summer.

The second swallow species around the farm is the barn swallow. They are even less picky about their lodging accommodations. All they need is an overhang or a barn rafter and to be left alone. Last summer I counted 47 nests in our main cattle barn. As you can see from the video above, they make an effective squadron in the summer when flying around patrolling the cattle lots!

The only downside of barn swallows is that they can be a bit messier than martins. It's not a huge problem inside of a cattle barn or outbuilding, but last summer a barn swallow family decided to nest on one of my front porch posts at the house. They had a fully formed mud nest and eggs before I noticed. Reluctantly, I let them hatch and raise their brood. I washed their mess up every few days until the babies flew the nest, before tearing down their nest to encourage them to move elsewhere next time. (hopefully not too far away)

According to the Audubon society, barn swallows can eat 850 insects per day each. Martins have a similar pest gulping acumen. The benefits seem obvious now, but it took a little while for me to get on board. I first began putting martin boxes in fence lines because it was part of a USDA conservation program. It probably wasn't even something on my radar, but was a requirement of the program we were enrolled in. As it turns out, the program had it's intended effect since it demonstrated the value of the practice and prompted me to continue and expand habitat for these birds on the farm even after I was no longer contractually required to do so.

Flies can never be completely eliminated around cattle, but anything that can be done to slow them down and make my cows happier and more productive is something I'm in favor of. Especially if that something is a squadron of super entertaining birds that are harmless to people and deadly to flies, rather than a chemical from a bottle.

Put up your own martin house:

Just because you don't have cows, doesn't mean you shouldn't have martins. Martins naturally nest in abandoned woodpecker nests, but they now depend almost entirely on people to provide them nesting sites. Now is the perfect time of year to put up a martin house in your yard for this season. If you provide them with a house, they'll provide you with bug control and some afternoon and evening entertainment all summer!


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