As horse owners, we often wrongly believe we are destined to put up with flies, insects, and rodent infestations. Other times, we become so frustrated with the situation that we resort to chemical warfare, potentially adding unnecessary and harmful toxins to the environment. Encouraging insect-eating birds to move into horse areas is an excellent low-tech, cost-effective, and eco-friendly method for pest control—one our grandparents probably utilized on their farms.
Every horse person loves spring, but summer brings the return of swallows to North America. Depending on where you live, you should begin to see swallows sometime between early March and late May. Their cheery twittering can brighten any gray day and marks their return from Central America, where they overwinter. Several types of swallows are native to North America, including Violet-green Swallows, Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, and Cliff Swallows. Swallows are about five or six inches in length and are easily identified by their pointed wings and tails.
Particularly exciting for horse owners, swallows are voracious insect eaters. These slender little birds reportedly eat up to a thousand insects per bird per day. Multiply that by two for a nesting pair and over a period of weeks, you have excellent insect control without ever having to buy anything (outside of a nest box or two) or using chemicals.
To encourage swallows to take up residence on your property, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Cliff and barn swallows build mud nests on the underside of roofs, overhangs, bridges, cliffs, and in barns. If droppings become a problem, install a board as a ledge under the nest to keep the area below it clean.
Violet-greens and Tree Swallows are secondary cavity dwellers, meaning they nest in existing holes and crevices, such as those in dead trees and snags or those made by woodpeckers. Happily for us, they also take very well to nest boxes. Nest boxes for violet-greens and tree swallows are easy to build or buy and hang in your yard or horse property, and these birds are easily attracted to them.
Note: nesting boxes must be specific to the type of swallows in your area. Poorly made boxes encourage non-native species to move in, such as Starlings and House Sparrows, which can out-compete swallows and other natives. Nests of these species should be removed as soon as they are detected. Consult your local Audubon chapter, wild bird store, birding organization, extension office, the library, or the internet for advice on the types and sources of nesting boxes.
Tree Swallows use the same type of next box as Mountain Bluebirds, Western Bluebirds, and House Wrens. These beautiful birds are all insect eaters as well, so putting up a Tree Swallow nest box may have added benefits.
The springtime return of swallows conveniently coincides with shedding season. During grooming sessions, collect horse and dog hair to set out in tuffs in your pasture area. Then, once nesting season commences in late spring, the swallows will begin recycling that hair into nesting material.
These pretty, little birds provide horse owners with entertainment through their graceful acrobatics as they swoop to pick up nesting materials and dart about catching insects—as well as a season’s worth of free, non-toxic pest control.