Colour photo of Barn Swallows on a branch
Photo: David Bradley

The Barn Swallow is a medium-sized migratory songbird, measuring 15 to 18 cm in length. Adults have steely-blue upperparts, cinnamon underparts, and a chestnut throat and forehead. The species is readily distinguished from other North American swallows by its deeply forked tail.

Protecting and recovering species at risk in Ontario

Species at risk recovery is a key part of protecting Ontario’s biodiversity. Biodiversity – the variety of living organisms on Earth – provides us with clean air and water, food, fibre, medicine and other resources that we need to survive.

The Endangered Species Act, 2007 (ESA) is the Government of Ontario’s legislative commitment to protecting and recovering species at risk and their habitats. As soon as a species is listed as extirpated, endangered or threatened under the ESA, it is automatically protected from harm or harassment. Also, immediately upon listing, the habitats of endangered and threatened species are protected from damage or destruction.

Under the ESA, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (the Ministry) must ensure that a recovery strategy is prepared for each species that is listed as endangered or threatened. A recovery strategy provides science-based advice to government on what is required to achieve recovery of a species.

Government response statements

Within nine months after a recovery strategy is prepared, the ESA requires the Ministry to publish a statement summarizing the government’s intended actions and priorities in response to the recovery strategy. The recovery strategy for the Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) in Ontario was completed on August 13, 2014.

The response statement is the government’s policy response to the scientific advice provided in the recovery strategy. All recommendations provided in the recovery strategy were considered and this response statement identifies those that are considered to be appropriate and necessary for the protection and recovery of the species. In addition to the strategy, the response statement is based on input from stakeholders, other jurisdictions, Aboriginal communities and members of the public. It reflects the best available traditional, local and scientific knowledge at this time and may be adapted if new information becomes available. In implementing the actions in the response statement, the ESA allows the Ministry to determine what is feasible, taking into account social and economic factors.

Moving forward to protect and recover Barn Swallow

The Barn Swallow is listed as a threatened species under the ESA, which protects both the bird and its habitat. The ESA prohibits harm or harassment of the species and damage or destruction of its habitat without authorization. Such authorization would require that conditions established by the Ministry be met.

In North America, Barn Swallow population trends tend to be stable or slightly increasing in the southern regions of United States, but become progressively more negative northward and eastward through the species’ breeding range. This decline is evident in Canada where a long-term population decline of approximately 80 percent has been observed over the last 40 years. Similar trends have been noted in Ontario with the long-term rate of decline amounting to a cumulative loss of 66 percent since 1972. Breeding bird survey data suggest that the species maintained stable population numbers through the 1970s and that a decline started sometime in the early to mid-1980s. The timing of this decline coincides with timing of declines observed in many other species of aerial insectivores (birds that feed on insects while in flight). Survey data for the most recent 10 year period, 2002-2012, indicate that Barn Swallow populations in Ontario have continued to decline but the average annual rate of decline has lessened. Factoring in the ongoing decline since the Breeding Bird Atlas estimate in 2005, the Ontario Barn Swallow population as of 2011 was estimated by the Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario to be about 350,000 birds.

The number of Barn Swallows in Ontario and other parts of North America increased following European settlement with the associated increase in the amount and diversity of human-made structures available for nesting. Despite the recent population declines, the current distribution and numbers of Barn Swallow in Ontario may still be greater than they were prior to European settlement.

Distribution and biology of Barn Swallow

The Barn Swallow is the most widespread swallow in the world, found on every continent except Antarctica. In Canada, it is known to breed in all provinces and territories. In Ontario, the species breeds throughout the province, but over 90 percent of the provincial population is concentrated in southern Ontario, south of the Canadian Shield. Throughout its range, the Barn Swallow is found in close association with human populations, nesting commonly inside or outside buildings and human-made structures, under bridges and in road culverts.

Barn Swallows feed almost entirely on flying insects, foraging individually or in small groups over open land and water. Barn Swallows will nest in solitary situations but are more frequently found in small, loose colonies with multiple pairs nesting on or in a single nesting structure. Adults show fidelity to breeding sites by commonly reusing the same nest. The number of old nests at a site at the start of the breeding season is also thought to serve as an important cue for young birds selecting their initial breeding location. Outside of the breeding season, Barn Swallows will congregate nightly in communal roosts. Barn Swallows are long-distance migrants that spend the winter in Central and South America.

Threats to Barn Swallow

Numerous factors have been proposed as possible explanations for the recent declines in this species. Although there have been losses in human-made nest site availability and in the amount of foraging habitat, these losses do not appear to account entirely for the severity and timing of the declines in Barn Swallow populations. Like many other aerial insectivores, the Barn Swallow has experienced very large declines that began somewhat inexplicably in the mid to late 1980s in Canada. A report published by the American Bird Conservancy suggests growing evidence that insecticides such as neonicotinoids could be impacting bird populations due to direct toxicity and also indirectly as a result of overall reduction in their food supply of insects. Likewise, peer-reviewed research from the Netherlands has demonstrated that bird populations have declined most sharply in areas where neonicotinoid levels in surface water were highest. This study also concluded that starlings, tree sparrows and swallows were among the most affected. While there has been a reduction in the overall use of pesticides by the agricultural sector in Ontario over the past 25 years, the use of neonicotinoid pesticides has increased in recent years. Neonicotinoids are a relatively new group of insecticides that have quickly become one of the most widely-used insecticides in the world.

Loss of Barn Swallow nesting habitat, due to demolition, replacement or renovation of human-made structures, is a widespread and ongoing threat. The availability of nest sites may be reduced as old structures are replaced or retro-fitted with more modern designs that no longer allow access to nest sites or are less suitable for nest establishment. Given the high probability that individual birds will return to their previous nest sites, permanent or temporary loss of nest sites may be detrimental to the annual reproductive success of returning individuals.

The decline of Barn Swallow has also been attributed to loss or degradation of foraging habitat. Over the past century, open grassland types of agricultural habitat in southern Ontario have decreased substantially due to reforestation and urbanization. Changes in agricultural practices and land use that affect flying insect populations and thus food availability can have a major impact on this species. A study in Britain found aerial insect abundance and Barn Swallow density varied by crop type, with highest numbers of both over pasture and lowest numbers over row crops. In Ontario, pasture and hay acreage has been declining since the 1940s. In addition to loss of foraging habitat for Barn Swallows, the movement away from livestock farming toward cash crop farming has also contributed to decreased availability of nesting site structures (e.g., barns).

Additional potential threats to Barn Swallow include reduced productivity due to predation parasitism, persecution, habitat loss and disturbance at roosting sites, climate change, and severe weather. Furthermore, threats are likely affecting the species during migration and on the wintering grounds, including exposure to pesticides and loss of foraging habitat in those areas.

It is likely that multiple direct and indirect threats at various locations and stages in the species’ life cycle are having a combined impact on Barn Swallow populations. To achieve a self-sustaining population of Barn Swallow in Ontario, research is required to understand the causal factors and magnitude of threats causing the decline in order to focus recovery efforts on actions that will have the most benefit to the species.

Given some uncertainty with respect to known and potential threats to the species and its habitat, it is difficult to estimate the amount of time required to slow the current population decline and achieve a stable population. However, as the species has already begun to show a reduction in the rate of decline, achieving a stable population appears to be a realistic longterm goal. Aiming to maintain a stable, self-sustaining population within 20 years is thought to allow sufficient time to fill knowledge gaps, which in some cases will require extensive multiyear research studies. In the meantime, implementation of recovery actions over the shortterm will help manage the population and slow the rate of decline. It is acknowledged that further reduction in the current size of the Ontario Barn Swallow population is inevitable until the rate of decline is halted. Through implementation of a comprehensive suite of protection and recovery actions, establishing a self-sustaining population, at no less than 60 percent of the present-day population size, by 2035, is considered to be achievable. This target takes into account the recent reduction in the rate of decline of the species and the Government of Ontario’s intent to implement key recovery actions to address the main threats to the species that go beyond what was anticipated when the recovery strategy was developed. As research into the sources and magnitude of threats progresses over the next five years, the government’s goal for the recovery of Barn Swallow will be re-evaluated to better reflect our understanding of the factors driving the decline and the ability to effectively mitigate them.

The government’s short-term goal for the recovery of the Barn Swallow is to reduce the rate of decline by minimizing threats and improving habitat conditions. The long-term goal is to maintain a stable, self-sustaining population throughout the species’ range by 2035 (within 20 years).

Protecting and recovering species at risk is a shared responsibility. No single agency or organization has the knowledge, authority or financial resources to protect and recover all of Ontario’s species at risk. Successful recovery requires inter-governmental co-operation and the involvement of many individuals, organizations and communities.

In developing the government response statement, the Ministry considered what actions are feasible for the government to lead directly and what actions are feasible for the government to support its conservation partners to undertake.

Government-led actions

To help protect and recover the Barn Swallow, the government will directly undertake the following actions:

  • Develop, publish, and update best management practices on techniques to mitigate impacts of activities on Barn Swallow, such as information on creating nesting habitat.
  • Work with stakeholders to develop an action plan (e.g., related to pollinator health)
  • to reduce neonicotinoid use in Ontario, including developing a system to reduce the number of acres planted with neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed.
  • Work with industry partners and stakeholders to further reduce overall pesticide use in Ontario through actions such as integrated pest management, education, technology and incentives.
  • Educate other agencies and authorities involved in planning and environmental assessment processes on the protection requirements under the ESA.
  • Encourage the submission of Barn Swallow data to the Ministry’s central repository at the Natural Heritage Information Centre.
  • Undertake communications and outreach to increase public awareness of species at risk in Ontario.
  • Protect the Barn Swallow and its habitat through the ESA. Continue to implement and enforce the species-specific habitat description for Barn Swallow.
  • Support conservation, agency, municipal and industry partners, and Aboriginal communities and organizations to undertake activities to protect and recover the Barn Swallow. Support will be provided where appropriate through funding, agreements, permits (including conditions) and/or advisory services.
  • Encourage collaboration, and establish and communicate annual priority actions for government support in order to reduce duplication of efforts.

In July 2013, Ontario Regulation 242/08 section 23.5 came into effect, which allows individuals who are maintaining, repairing, modifying, replacing or demolishing a building or structure that provides Barn Swallow habitat to be provided with an exemption from sections 9 and 10 of the ESA to conduct their activity. This regulatory section requires beneficial actions for the species, such as creating replacement habitat and installing nest cups, as required, if nests will be removed, damaged or destroyed, or nesting area will be lost from the building or structure. Individuals using this section of the regulation must meet all eligibility criteria, register with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry prior to beginning their activity, and fulfill all conditions outlined in the regulation, in order to be provided the exemption from the ESA. Additionally, individuals registering for this regulatory section are required to monitor created habitat, keep monitoring records, and report Barn Swallow observations to the Ministry’s Natural Heritage Information Centre.

Government-supported actions

The government endorses the following actions as being necessary for the protection and recovery of the Barn Swallow. Actions identified as “high” will be given priority consideration for funding under the ESA. Where reasonable, the government will also consider the priority assigned to these actions when reviewing and issuing authorizations under the Endangered Species Act. Other organizations are encouraged to consider these priorities when developing projects or mitigation plans related to species at risk. The government will focus its support on these high-priority actions over the next five years.

Focus area: Research and monitoring

Objective: Increase knowledge of Barn Swallow habitat, ecology and the nature and significance of threats.

Widespread declines in aerial insectivore populations have raised concern as to whether there have been large-scale changes in insect populations due to insecticides, environmental contaminants, habitat degradation, climate change or other factors. Many knowledge gaps must be addressed in order to understand the most significant threats to this species’ survival and inform recovery planning. Ongoing monitoring is required to track the progress and effectiveness of recovery activities.


  1. (High) Encourage coordinated research into the link between insect availability, foraging habitat and population declines in Barn Swallow and other aerial insectivores breeding in Ontario, which may include evaluating:
    • Barn Swallow diet and factors (e.g., landscape, habitat, land use) affecting seasonal food availability (quantity and quality);
    • The extent that environmental contaminants (e.g., pesticides) are directly or indirectly affecting productivity and/or survival rates; and
    • Possible direct and indirect links between climate change and/or severe weather events and changes related to timing of insect availability and Barn Swallow populations.
  2. (High) Identify and describe the key characteristics of foraging and roosting habitat used by Barn Swallows in Ontario to inform habitat protection, management and enhancement.
  3. Evaluate factors affecting regional variability in population trends.
  4. Monitor Barn Swallow reproductive success and population trends in Ontario to track changes in species’ distribution, abundance and habitat use.
  5. Coordinate efforts and share information with other jurisdictions, including the federal government, to understand the relative degree to which Barn Swallow is impacted by threats that occur within Ontario versus threats that occur outside the breeding season (e.g., on wintering grounds).

Focus area: Habitat management

Objective: Maintain or improve nesting productivity by implementing appropriate practices for managing or enhancing Barn Swallow nest sites and associated foraging habitat.

The close association of this species with human-made structures makes it especially sensitive to changes in land use and other human activities. Projects that involve repairing, maintaining or removing structures that are habitat for Barn Swallow are common, and best management practices and effective mitigation options are required to reduce threats to the species. Best management practices for activities in foraging habitat are also necessary to minimize threats that result in reduced insect availability. Developing, promoting and evaluating practical actions that individuals and industry can undertake to address common management issues will help support the protection and recovery of Barn Swallow. Promoting beneficial actions that individuals can take proactively to enhance habitat is also encouraged.


  1. (High) Develop, promote, implement and evaluate the effectiveness of best management practices and techniques to mitigate impacts of activities on Barn Swallow nesting habitat, including evaluating the effectiveness of artificial nests and nest structures.
  2. (High) Develop and promote best management practices to minimize threats to Barn Swallow foraging habitat, such as:
    • Promoting integrated pest management (IPM);
    • Encouraging use of corn and soybean seeds that are not treated with neonicotinoids;
    • Further reducing overall pesticide use; and/or
    • Maintaining and enhancing hedgerows, riparian buffers and wetlands to encourage insect diversity and abundance.
  3. Assess options and where feasible promote Barn Swallow-friendly designs for human-made structures, such as maintaining or creating access to nesting sites, or incorporating nesting ledges or supports on new or existing buildings, barns or bridges.

Focus area: Stewardship and awareness

Objective: Increase public awareness of Barn Swallow, its habitat and threats, and promote stewardship of the species in Ontario.

Most suitable breeding habitat for Barn Swallow is on private land, and thus land owners and land managers have an important role to play in the protection and recovery of this species. Raising awareness about the beneficial value of Barn Swallows to humans and the environment, as well as how to reduce threats to the species, how to enhance its habitat, and how to conduct citizen science, will help to promote and encourage protection of the species and its habitat in Ontario.


  1. Develop and deliver strategic communications and outreach efforts focused on educating key audiences on ways to minimize threats and promoting the protection and enhancement of Barn Swallow nests, nest sites and foraging habitat.
  2. Develop programs to facilitate and encourage good stewardship and implementation of best management practices by landowners and land managers, which may be in coordination with other grasslands initiatives where applicable (e.g., recognition programs).

Implementing actions

Financial support for the implementation of actions may be available through the Species at Risk Stewardship Fund, Species at Risk Research Fund for Ontario, or the Species at Risk Farm Incentive Program. Conservation partners are encouraged to discuss project proposals related to the actions in this response statement with the Ministry. The Ministry can also advise if any authorizations under the ESA or other legislation may be required to undertake the project.

Implementation of the actions may be subject to changing priorities across the multitude of species at risk, available resources and the capacity of partners to undertake recovery activities. Many of the research and habitat management actions included in this response statement will also assist in the recovery of other at risk insectivorous birds in Ontario. Where appropriate, the implementation of actions for multiple species will be co-ordinated across government response statements.

Reviewing progress

The ESA requires the Ministry to conduct a review of progress towards protecting and recovering a species not later than five years from the publication of this response statement.

The review will help identify if adjustments are needed to achieve the protection and recovery of the Barn Swallow.


We would like to thank all those who participated in the development of the Recovery Strategy for the Barn Swallow in Ontario (Hirundo rustica) for their dedication to protecting and recovering species at risk.

For additional information:

Visit the species at risk website at
Contact your MNRF district office
Contact the Natural Resources Information Centre
TTY: 1-866-686-6072
For more information on how to register for Ontario Regulation 242/08 section 23.5, visit Alter a structure (habitat for Barn Swallow) page