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Barn Swallow

Hirundo rustica

Migrant Bird that can be seen in Valparai

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The barn swallow is the most widespread species of swallow in the world. It is a distinctive passerine bird with blue upperparts, a long, deeply forked tail and curved, pointed wings. It is found in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. In Anglophone Europe it is just called the swallow; in Northern Europe it is the only common species called a "swallow" rather than a "martin".

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There are six subspecies of barn swallow, which breed across the Northern Hemisphere. Four are strongly migratory, and their wintering grounds cover much of the Southern Hemisphere as far south as central Argentina, the Cape Province of South Africa, and northern Australia. Its huge range means that the barn swallow is not endangered, although there may be local population declines due to specific threats.

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The barn swallow is a bird of open country that normally uses man-made structures to breed and consequently has spread with human expansion. It builds a cup nest from mud pellets in barns or similar structures and feeds on insects caught in flight. This species lives in close association with humans, and its insect-eating habits mean that it is tolerated by humans; this acceptance was reinforced in the past by superstitions regarding the bird and its nest. There are frequent cultural references to the barn swallow in literary and religious works due to both its living in close proximity to humans and its annual migration. The barn swallow is the national bird of Estonia.

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The adult male barn swallow of the nominate subspecies H. r. rustica is 17–19 cm long including 2–7 cm of elongated outer tail feathers. It has a wingspan of 32–34.5 cm and weighs 16–22 g. It has steel blue upperparts and a rufous forehead, chin and throat, which are separated from the off-white underparts by a broad dark blue breast band. The outer tail feathers are elongated, giving the distinctive deeply forked "swallow tail". There is a line of white spots across the outer end of the upper tail. The female is similar in appearance to the male, but the tail streamers are shorter, the blue of the upperparts and breast band is less glossy, and the underparts paler. The juvenile is browner and has a paler rufous face and whiter underparts. It also lacks the long tail streamers of the adult.

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The song of the barn swallow is a cheerful warble, often ending with su-seer with the second note higher than the first but falling in pitch. Calls include witt or witt-witt and a loud splee-plink when excited (or trying to chase intruders away from the nest). The alarm calls include a sharp siflitt for predators like cats and a flitt-flitt for birds of prey like the hobby. This species is fairly quiet on the wintering grounds.

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The distinctive combination of a red face and blue breast band render the adult barn swallow easy to distinguish from the African Hirundo species and from the welcome swallow with which its range overlaps in Australasia. In Africa the short tail streamers of the juvenile barn swallow invite confusion with juvenile red-chested swallow, but the latter has a narrower breast band and more white in the tail.

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The barn swallow was described by Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae in 1758 as Hirundo rustica, characterised as H. rectricibus, exceptis duabus intermediis, macula alba notatîs. Hirundo is the Latin word for "swallow"; rusticus means "of the country". This species is the only one of that genus to have a range extending into the Americas, with the majority of Hirundo species being native to Africa. This genus of blue-backed swallows is sometimes called the "barn swallows".

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The Oxford English Dictionary dates the English common name "barn swallow" to 1851, though an earlier instance of the collocation in an English-language context is in Gilbert White's popular book The Natural History of Selborne, originally published in 1789:

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The swallow, though called the chimney-swallow, by no means builds altogether in chimnies (sic), but often within barns and out-houses against the rafters ... In Sweden she builds in barns, and is called ladusvala, the barn-swallow.

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This suggests that the English name may be a calque on the Swedish term.

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There are few taxonomic problems within the genus, but the red-chested swallow—a resident of West Africa, the Congo basin, and Ethiopia—was formerly treated as a subspecies of barn swallow. The red-chested swallow is slightly smaller than its migratory relative, has a narrower blue breast-band, and (in the adult) has shorter tail streamers. In flight, it looks paler underneath than barn swallow.

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The short wings, red belly and incomplete breast band of H. r. tytleri are also found in H. r. erythrogaster, and DNA analyses show that barn swallows from North America colonised the Baikal region of Siberia, a dispersal direction opposite to that for most changes in distribution between North America and Eurasia.

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The preferred habitat of the barn swallow is open country with low vegetation, such as pasture, meadows and farmland, preferably with nearby water. This swallow avoids heavily wooded or precipitous areas and densely built-up locations. The presence of accessible open structures such as barns, stables, or culverts to provide nesting sites, and exposed locations such as wires, roof ridges or bare branches for perching, are also important in the bird's selection of its breeding range.

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It breeds in the Northern Hemisphere from sea level to typically 2,700 m, but to 3,000 m in the Caucasus and North America, and it is absent only from deserts and the cold northernmost parts of the continents. Over much of its range, it avoids towns, and in Europe is replaced in urban areas by the house martin. However, in Honshū, Japan, the barn swallow is a more urban bird, with the red-rumped swallow replacing it as the rural species.

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In winter, the barn swallow is cosmopolitan in its choice of habitat, avoiding only dense forests and deserts. It is most common in open, low vegetation habitats, such as savanna and ranch land, and in Venezuela, South Africa and Trinidad and Tobago it is described as being particularly attracted to burnt or harvested sugarcane fields and the waste from the cane. In the absence of suitable roost sites, they may sometimes roost on wires where they are more exposed to predators. Individual birds tend to return to the same wintering locality each year and congregate from a large area to roost in reed beds. These roosts can be extremely large; one in Nigeria had an estimated 1.5 million birds. These roosts are thought to be a protection from predators, and the arrival of roosting birds is synchronised in order to overwhelm predators like African hobbies. The barn swallow has been recorded as breeding in the more temperate parts of its winter range, such as the mountains of Thailand and in central Argentina.

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Migration of barn swallows between Britain and South Africa was first established on 23 December 1912 when a bird that had been ringed by James Masefield at a nest in Staffordshire, was found in Natal. As would be expected for a long-distance migrant, this bird has occurred as a vagrant to such distant areas as Hawaii, Bermuda, Greenland, Tristan da Cunha the Falkland Islands, and even Antarctica.

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The barn swallow is similar in its habits to other aerial insectivores, including other swallow species and the unrelated swifts. It is not a particularly fast flier, with a speed estimated at about 11 m/s, up to 20 m/s and a wing beat rate of approximately 5, up to 7–9 times each second.

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The barn swallow typically feeds in open areas] 7–8 m above shallow water or the ground often following animals, humans or farm machinery to catch disturbed insects, but it will occasionally pick prey items from the water surface, walls and plants. In the breeding areas, large flies make up around 70% of the diet, with aphids also a significant component. However, in Europe, the barn swallow consumes fewer aphids than the house or sand martins. On the wintering grounds, Hymenoptera, especially flying ants, are important food items. When egg-laying, barn swallows hunt in pairs, but will form often large flocks otherwise.

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The amount of food a clutch will get depends on the size of the clutch, with larger clutches getting more food on average. The timing of a clutch also determines the food given; later broods get food that is smaller in size compared to earlier broods. This is because larger insects are too far away from the nest to be profitable in terms of energy expenditure.

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Isotope studies have shown that wintering populations may utilise different feeding habitats, with British breeders feeding mostly over grassland, whereas Swiss birds utilised woodland more. Another study showed that a single population breeding in Denmark actually wintered in two separate and different areas.

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The barn swallow drinks by skimming low over lakes or rivers and scooping up water with its open mouth. This bird bathes in a similar fashion, dipping into the water for an instant while in flight.

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Swallows gather in communal roosts after breeding, sometimes thousands strong. Reed beds are regularly favoured, with the birds swirling en masse before swooping low over the reeds. Reed beds are an important source of food prior to and whilst on migration; although the barn swallow is a diurnal migrant that can feed on the wing whilst it travels low over ground or water, the reed beds enable fat deposits to be established or replenished.

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The male barn swallow returns to the breeding grounds before the females and selects a nest site, which is then advertised to females with a circling flight and song. The breeding success of the male is related to the length of the tail streamers, with longer streamers being more attractive to the female. Males with longer tail feathers are generally longer-lived and more disease resistant, females thus gaining an indirect fitness benefit from this form of selection, since longer tail feathers indicate a genetically stronger individual which will produce offspring with enhanced vitality. Males in northern Europe have longer tails than those further south; whereas in Spain the male's tail streamers are only 5% longer than the female's, in Finland the difference is 20%. In Denmark, the average male tail length increased by 9% between 1984 and 2004, but it is possible that climatic changes may lead in the future to shorter tails if summers become hot and dry.

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Males with long streamers also have larger white tail spots, and since feather-eating bird lice prefer white feathers, large white tail spots without parasite damage again demonstrate breeding quality; there is a positive association between spot size and the number of offspring produced each season.

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The breeding season of the barn swallow is variable; in the southern part of the range, the breeding season usually is from February or March to early to mid September, although some late second and third broods finish in October. In the northern part of the range, it usually starts late May to early June and ends the same time as the breeding season of the southernmost birds.

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Both sexes defend the nest, but the male is particularly aggressive and territorial. Once established, pairs stay together to breed for life, but extra-pair copulation is common, making this species genetically polygamous, despite being socially monogamous. Males guard females actively to avoid being cuckolded. Males may use deceptive alarm calls to disrupt extrapair copulation attempts toward their mates.

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As its name implies, the barn swallow typically nests inside accessible buildings such as barns and stables, or under bridges and wharves. Before man-made sites became common, it nested on cliff faces or in caves, but this is now rare. The neat cup-shaped nest is placed on a beam or against a suitable vertical projection. It is constructed by both sexes, although more often by the female, with mud pellets collected in their beaks and lined with grasses, feathers, algae or other soft materials. The nest building ability of the male is also sexually selected; females will lay more eggs and at an earlier date with males who are better at nest construction, with the opposite being true with males that are not. After building the nest, barn swallows may nest colonially where sufficient high-quality nest sites are available, and within a colony, each pair defends a territory around the nest which, for the European subspecies, is 4 to 8 m2 in size. Colony size tends to be larger in North America.

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In North America at least, barn swallows frequently engage in a mutualist relationship with ospreys. Barn swallows will build their nest below an osprey nest, receiving protection from other birds of prey that are repelled by the exclusively fish-eating ospreys. The ospreys are alerted to the presence of these predators by the alarm calls of the swallows.

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There are normally two broods, with the original nest being reused for the second brood and being repaired and reused in subsequent years. The female lays two to seven, but typically four or five, reddish-spotted white eggs. The clutch size is influenced by latitude, with clutch sizes of northern populations being higher on average than southern populations. The eggs are 20 mm × 14 mm in size, and weigh 1.9 g, of which 5% is shell. In Europe, the female does almost all the incubation, but in North America the male may incubate up to 25% of the time. The incubation period is normally 14–19 days, with another 18–23 days before the altricial chicks fledge. The fledged young stay with, and are fed by, the parents for about a week after leaving the nest. Occasionally, first-year birds from the first brood will assist in feeding the second brood. Compared to those from early broods, juvenile barn swallows from late broods have been found to migrate at a younger age, fuel less efficiently during migration and have lower return rates the following year.

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The barn swallow will mob intruders such as cats or accipiters that venture too close to their nest, often flying very close to the threat. Adult barn swallows have few predators, but some are taken by accipiters, falcons, and owls. Brood parasitism by cowbirds in North America or cuckoos in Eurasia is rare.

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Hatching success is 90% and the fledging survival rate is 70–90%. Average mortality is 70–80% in the first year and 40–70% for the adult. Although the record age is more than 11 years, most survive less than four years. Barn swallow nestlings have prominent red gapes, a feature shown to induce feeding by parent birds. An experiment in manipulating brood size and immune system showed the vividness of the gape was positively correlated with T-cell–mediated immunocompetence, and that larger brood size and injection with an antigen led to a less vivid gape.

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The barn swallow has been recorded as hybridising with the cliff swallow and the cave swallow in North America, and the house martin in Eurasia, the cross with the latter being one of the most common passerine hybrids.

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Barn Swallow, Bird that can be seen in Valparai
Barn Swallow, Bird that can be seen in Valparai
Barn Swallow, Bird that can be seen in Valparai
Barn Swallow, Bird that can be seen in Valparai

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Wings over Valparai

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The Anamalai Tiger Reserve and Valparai area in Western-Ghats of Tamilnadu are both perfect bird watching destinations. Birders will marvel at the array of colorful birds like Hornbills, Thrush Family, Flycatchers, woodpeckers and of course the sighting of our national bird, The Indian Peafowl.

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There are more than 350 species of birds found in Anamalais. The list includes resident birds, winter visitors and endemic birds of Anamalais. Nearly 5 % of birds found in Anamalai Tiger Reserve are endemic to Western Ghats

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What is birdwatching?

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Birdwatching or birding is the observation and study of birds with the naked eye or through a visual enhancement device like binoculars. Birding often involves a significant auditory component, as many bird species are more readily detected and identified by ear than by eye. Most birdwatchers pursue this activity mainly for recreational or social reasons, unlike ornithologists, who engage in the study of birds using more formal scientific methods.

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What do you need for birdwatching?

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• The most basic equipment required for bird watching is your eyes. That´s true but you will soon need to have more items with you if you intend to make this a pastime or serious hobby. How far you go is a matter of taste and budget.

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• The most useful thing that you can carry is a notepad and pencil. Use this to make a note of location, time, date, weather and habitat. Do a list of the birds that you see and know. Do a drawing or write down a description of those that you don’t. You can look them up later in you field guide. Your notebook should become a diary of where you have been and what you have seen. It will become a useful record as time passes.

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• A Field guide is a book, normally illustrated with drawings or photographs, which provides descriptions of birds that assists you in their identification. The descriptions use several factors to help you determine the exact bird that you are looking at. As soon as you see a bird that you do not recognize you will need to have access a good field guide. There are many to choose from. They come in various shapes, sizes, weight and cost.

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• Sites guides. These give locations where you can watch birds, the species you are likely to see and the best time to watch.

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• Binoculars. These are pretty essential and buy the best that you can afford. A good pair well looked after will last you a lifetime. Take time to choose ones that suit you.

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• Clothing. Bird watching being primarily an outdoor pursuit, it is sensible to have lightweight but warm and waterproof clothing. You will be more comfortable if you wear the right type of clothing for the conditions you are in.

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• Telescope. If you want to get a really close look at birds then you will need to get a bird watching scope and tripod. These are more expensive than binoculars but if you get to be serious about bird watching you will soon want to have them.

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• Camera. A simple point and shoot digital camera is good if you are close to birds, especially if you have a zoom lens. If not close enough to shoot birds it is still good to take general views or mementos of your day out. More expensive cameras, with telephoto lenses, can bring you close in to the birds.

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• Digiscoping. You can take pictures via your Scope–using it as a telephoto lens. You will need attachments for your scope.

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Code of birding ethics

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1. Promote the welfare of birds and their environment.
1. (a) Support the protection of important bird habitat.
1. (b) To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming.
   Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area;
   Keep well back from nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display areas, and important feeding sites. In such sensitive areas, if there is a need for extended observation, photography, filming, or recording, try to use a blind or hide, and take advantage of natural cover.
   Use artificial light sparingly for filming or photography, especially for close-ups.
1. (c) Before advertising the presence of a rare bird, evaluate the potential for disturbance to the bird, its surroundings, and other people in the area, and proceed only if access can be controlled, disturbance minimized, and permission has been obtained from private land-owners. The sites of rare nesting birds should be divulged only to the proper conservation authorities.
1. (d) Stay on roads, trails, and paths where they exist; otherwise keep habitat disturbance to a minimum.

2. Respect the law, and the rights of others.
2. (a) Do not enter private property without the owner’s explicit permission.
2. (b) Follow all laws, rules, and regulations governing use of roads and public areas, both at home and abroad.
2. (c) Practice common courtesy in contacts with other people. Your exemplary behavior will generate goodwill with birders and non-birders alike.

3. Ensure that feeders, nest structures, and other artificial bird environments are safe.
3. (a) Keep dispensers, water, and food clean, and free of decay or disease. It is important to feed birds continually during harsh weather.
3. (b) Maintain and clean nest structures regularly.
3. (c) If you are attracting birds to an area, ensure the birds are not exposed to predation from cats and other domestic animals, or dangers posed by artificial hazards.

4. Group birding, whether organized or impromptu, requires special care.
  Each individual in the group, in addition to the obligations spelled out in Items #1 and #2, has responsibilities as a Group Member.
4. (a) Respect the interests, rights, and skills of fellow birders, as well as people participating in other legitimate outdoor activities. Freely share your knowledge and experience, except where code 1(c) applies. Be especially helpful to beginning birders.
4. (b) If you witness unethical birding behavior, assess the situation, and intervene if you think it prudent. When interceding, inform the person(s) of the inappropriate action, and attempt, within reason, to have it stopped. If the behavior continues, document it, and notify appropriate individuals or organizations.

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Other highlights for the avid birder will be the sighting of The Great HornBill or Thrush. Learn more about the endamic, migrants and other birds in and around valparai by checking out the list

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The below list is created in the guidance of Mr. K Selva Ganesh, Cinchona Government High School, Valparai who teaches English. Along with his students, won ebird’s Great Backyard Bird Count challenge, 2017. They contributed 360 checklists of birds, the highest number in the bird count challenge, and recorded 111 species.

Images and Data courtesy Mr. K Selva Ganesh, Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia and ebird.org

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List of Endamic Birds of Western-Ghats you can see in Valparai

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List of Migrant Birds that can be seen in Valparai

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List of Other Birds you can see in Valparai

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